Tenderness defines The Fault in Our Stars

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3 out of 4 stars

Young adult screen treatments ain’t easy and emotionally driven ones tend to provide an even bigger challenge. On paper, a film like The Fault in Our Stars easily seems like the next big Lifetime movie event of the summer. On screen, this adaptation of John Green’s novel manages to tug at the heartstrings just as often, yet counterbalances the story’s moroseness with humor and warmth. Led by a typically pitch-perfect Shailene Woodley, the ensemble delivers a strong screenplay with aplomb and overcomes the film’s inherent schmaltz with grace and skill.

Sixteen-year old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) has lived a good chunk of her life with the knowledge that her terminal cancer will take her life someday soon. This awareness shapes much of her realistic, even cynical personality and makes her a bit hardened on the outside. At an unbearable support meeting for young cancer patients that Hazel’s suffering mother (Laura Dern) and patient father (Sam Trammell) convince her to attend, Hazel meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who is sitting in to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff).  Hazel and Gus are immediately drawn to each other and begin an alternatingly wild and cautious relationship built under the looming reality that their time together will likely be quite short.

Director Josh Boone takes strong command of character-centric scenes, using the developed relationships to drive the action forward. When these scenes disappear for the sake of a novel-based plot point, the film tends to feel slack and disjointed (partly because of some sloppy editing choices), but these moments are far outweighed by the incredible chemistry Boone has managed to muster between the actors on screen.  His staging can be confusing at times as well, approaching surrealist when it should be realism through and through.  But as an up-and-coming director, he still shows great promise.

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort (Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers)
Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort
(Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers)

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ([500] Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) have proven their skill with adaptations before and maybe their faithfulness to their source material gets the better of them on occasion when it comes to language. But their ability with their signature natural dialogue remains unmatched. The two create vivid pictures of 2014 lifestyles and people that never feel false or forced.

Their greatest feat lies in their ability to instill so much comedy into the piece in the most unlikely of places. These lighthearted treatments of serious subject matter are much needed, as the cheeseball romance moments threaten to bring the entire film crashing to the ground without some kind of counter (a particular scene in the attic of Anne Frank defies plausibility completely). And although the suggestion of the ending is not entirely avoided, the plot generally keeps the audience on its toes and piques interest. The entire cast approaches the complex material with great tenderness and grace.

Unfortunately the written character portraits don’t provide much shading, so this contribution from the ensemble is definitely vital and makes character relationships feel clear and intriguing.

Shailene Woodley has had a particularly strong track record thus far in her young career and her work here does not alter that one bit. She instills her personality into every role and makes each her own, using her natural speech pattern and emotional capability with much shrewdness.  Here she occasionally finds difficulty obtaining a throughline with Mr. Elgort, but still manages to carry the entire film on her shoulders with care and vigor.

Elgort should not be completely steamrolled here. The actor does fine work with his dry humor and charm. His lack of a fully-fleshed character lets him down in the end and makes subsequent conflicts come across flat and superficial. But he has so much apparent star power, it is easy to see a bright future ahead for the young actor.

Laura Dern plasters a smile across her face to hide the terror and sadness that control her character’s life and her usage of this veneer makes this one of her strongest performances to date. A shout out should be given to Willem Dafoe for a brief appearance. While his entire character portrait and decisions are telegraphed from the first moment we see him, the actor still makes a bold attempt at providing an even darker side to the story.

This novel could not have been easy for producers to tackle, even considering the book’s wide fanbase. Material such as this can be such a turnoff if not handled correctly and these filmmakers clearly worked hard to get it right. The fluffy romance does not elevate the film on its own, but next to the frank humor and careful approach to subject matter, it turns the picture into a tragically touching Shakespearean tale of star-crossed lovers. And I can safely say I have never sat in a movie theater with more crying, sniffling audience members. Tearjerkers win every time.