Thursday, June 5, 2014
Review: "The Fault in Our Stars"
"The Fault in Our Stars" is an exhausting movie. And I mean that in a good way.
It's been awhile since a film left me so emotionally wrung out. This tender-yet-sharp drama about two teenagers with terminal cancer falling in love, based on the best-selling YA book by John Green, promises to be the no-BS version of tragic young romance. And, mostly, it is.
"This is the truth. Sorry," introduces/apologizes our heroine, Hazel Grace (a remarkable Shailene Woodley).
Hazel, 17, had thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs, forcing her to constantly breathe with the aid of an oxygen tank and counting her dwindling days on this mortal coil. Smart and realistic, she attends a church support group for young cancer patients, mostly to appease her loving but slightly smothering parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell).
There she meets Augustus Waters, an exuberant character exuberantly played by Ansel Elgort. A former cancer patient himself -- his right leg is prosthetic, rendering him a cyborg, he boasts -- he's mostly there to support his best friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), who sacrificed one eye to the disease and is in danger of losing the other.
Augustus is a braggart and a charmer, the sort of fellow who coasts through life buoyed by his own outsized expectations for himself, telling the group he fully expects to live "an extraordinary life." But it's the retiring Hazel he can't keep his eyes off of, and soon the pair have struck up a deep friendship that dances right up to the line of love in full bloom.
The chemistry between Woodley and Elgort is terrific, with her the wary, inner-directed girl obsessed with damaging as few other lives before she dies, and he the world-conquering hero who knows not fear or hesitation.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote the terrific "(500) Days of Summer," don't go in for a lot of storytelling tricks to endear the couple to the audience. Rather, they focus on building the connection between Hazel and Augustus, and through them we are drawn in.
Director Josh Boone mostly stays out of the way, eliciting strong performances from his cast while remaining as true to the book's tone as possible. (It's unread by me, but from what I've gathered it appears to be an extremely faithful adaptation.)
Soon after meeting, Hazel and Augusts each invite the other to read their favorite book. His is the novelization of a video game ("Counterinsurgence 2"), showing that Augustus is bright if not worldly. Hazel gives him "An Imperial Affliction," the tale of a girl who dies of cancer, written by a mysterious author named Peter Van Houten who has decamped to Amsterdam, eschewing his fans and promising never to write another word.
Later, Hazel and Augustus will get a chance to travel to the Netherlands to meet him, a trip filled with magic and discovery, except for the actual part where they meet their beloved author (Willem Dafoe).
(Here's a pro tip on the interpersonal skills of writers: Expect to be disappointed.)
The film is set in Indianapolis (Green was born and lives here), though it was shot in and around Pittsburgh. (Darn those miserly Indiana film tax incentives!) If you look hard one can spot a few cues in the background, most notably a picnic scene at the "Funky Bones" outdoor art exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's 100 Acres. Augustus also rocks a Rik Smits jersey at one point.
"The Fault in Our Stars" is ultimately a life-affirming film, if one that favors sour realities over saccharine fantasies. "I don't want this particular life," Hazel admits. This movie is not afraid to show the bottom of being 17 and knowing you are soon to die, and that's pretty low. But the view from there is still uplifting.