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Rich characters and strong performances fill 'The Fault in our Stars'

Fox 2000

By Noah Cohen, Daily Arts Writer
Published June 11, 2014

“The Fault in Our Stars” was first a book written by John Green, who, building on a huge and growing edifice of progressive teen fiction, is right now winning the proverbial lottery in the Young Adult literature world. The success of “The Fault in Our Stars” and the strange apotheosis of John Green is the culmination of a large international group of savvy young adults expressing their admiration for a writer/video-blogger who treats young adults as real people whose inner truths resist the sugary simplicity of the genre that names them.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is about a girl named Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley, “Divergent”) who, apart from being a fairly normal teenager, an avid reader and an introvert, happens to have a case of Stage 4 thyroid cancer that will almost definitely kill her in the not-so-distant future. Her mom, (Laura Dern, “Jurassic Park”), forces her to go to a support group for kids with cancer, where she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, “Divergent”), an endearingly pompous boy who immediately starts hitting on Hazel; so begins the central courtship, between two teenagers living on borrowed time.

The cancer movie minigenre is treacherous territory for up-and-coming directors like Josh Boone. Boone had to depend utterly on his cancer-ridden cast to cradle the emotional grenade of imminent death beside the casual reality of the everyday. In this respect, this movie knocks it out of the park. The pacing is simple but effective, and the leads are on-point when it most matters.

Unexpectedly, against all precedent, the parents are important characters whose inclusion creates an atmosphere that is believable and intimate. Recall that when kids get romantic arcs in fiction, there’s usually some distance keeping their interactions away from the romance-killing gaze of their parents, but for kids with cancer, this simply isn’t an option. The movie (following the book’s example) compassionately addresses the inner lives of its secondary characters, foreshadowing a life for Hazel’s parents after she passes, and giving Isaac (Nat Wolff, “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding”), a friend of Gus’s, ample screen-time for his own personal struggles. Wolff plays up the goofy, injecting some much-needed comic relief.

The romantic aspect of “The Fault in Our Stars,” jump-started by the shameless bravado of Elgort’s character, takes off with an easy chemistry enhanced by the young actors’ time together on the set of “Divergent.” Woodley seems normal, intelligent, hesitant, and faithful to her character’s circumstances, but Elgort? Elgort is extraordinary. Elgort brings Gus to life with a bright, mock-pretentious swagger that even the book, with many more lines, struggled to produce. One scene in particular, the scene where Gus declares that he is in love with Hazel, shines in memory as a perfect translation of a book scene to a movie scene, thanks in large part to Elgort’s charming and complete grasp of Augustus Waters.

Some faults include the unnecessary FX with which the movie portrays the texting episodes; the later dramatic FX are equally unnecessary and make the scene of Hazel’s hospitalization less relatable. Woodley’s overdub at times feels affected, and the dumbing-down of some dialogue between Hazel and Gus was bothersome, though perhaps less so if you haven’t read the book. The beginning feels too heavy, partly because of Woodley’s overdub, but in general, this movie is a rollercoaster that only goes up.

The sonic background is beautiful, incorporating Charli XCX, STRFKR and Ed Sheeran, the lyrics of each song bleeding into the narrative. The movie makes an especially bold sonic gesture when the couple visit Anne Frank’s house, overdubbing Anne Frank’s mature words onto a Hazel laboriously climbing the house stairs with her crappy lungs. The boldness of the overdub is a fierce directorial statement, rebuffing cynicism about young thinkers (NB: Anne Frank) and exalting in the private heroism of personal struggle.

It is not necessary to have read the book before seeing the movie. Nor is it necessary to watch the video-blog of John Green and his brother, Hank Green. But to be in-the-know provides several treats when watching the movie; for instance, in one episode of his video-blog, Green filmed himself on a bridge in the Netherlands that would be in the movie. In another entry, he hilariously mispronounces some of the Dutch food his characters eat, and tells movie-relevant stories about math, water and tulips. If you like this movie, it’s strongly recommended that you look up the Vlogbrothers.

It's jarring to recognize book quotes thrown into the movie, and perhaps the movie experience is smoother if you haven’t read the book. My friend hadn’t read it, so I asked him on the drive home what it was like for him, seeing the movie without my background. He said, quote: “I fucking definitely have to read that fucking book,” and advised me to give the movie an “A” in this review.


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