At a heightened point in The Fault in Our Stars, the drunken writer who the film’s heroine idolizes (Peter Van Houten, brought to life magnificently by Willem Dafoe) refuses to treat Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) or Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) as his character says is “ the manner to which they are accustomed,” as longtime sufferers of cancer. By this, he means he will not acquiesce to their demands – even already agreed-upon items like revealing the fate of Sisyphus the hamster in his novel An Imperial Affliction – and it’s moments like these when you understand why this quirky teen movie is hyped as not-your-average cancer victim character study. For the most part, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber succeed in retaining the charmingly shrewd nature of John Green’s popular book that follows these star-crossed lovers from Indiana to Amsterdam, from hospital beds to “the literal heart of Jesus” (which is where Hazel’s counselor tells them cancer kids reside).
The film begins by plopping us into Hazel’s cancer-support group, led by a guitar-toting, balding counselor (Mike Birbiglia) whose bumbling questions facilitate philosophical banter between Hazel and Augustus. The two step outside and flirtatiously exchange metaphors before informing Hazel’s mom (Laura Dern nails Frannie’s good nature) of their newfound, fast friendship. From here, the mood escalates via text messaging – an adorable effect, scrawled cartoonishly on the screen over scenes of Hazel at the dinner table, in bed, lying on her back in the grass, moodily analyzing a childhood swingset.
We watch the seesaw of romantic progress and developments with their diseases (hers thyroid cancer, his osteosarcoma), and director Josh Boone brightly captures the emotions his capable cast evokes, almost flinging it in the faces of viewers, as the film communicates an epidemic of dampened cheeks. For many, the movie amounts to a memorable cry, but perhaps sadder than the story’s touching conclusion is the knowledge that those who only see the movie will never languish in how slowly this same tale unfolds on paper.
Fans of the book won’t love the quickened pace onscreen but will appreciate the book’s pop culture references in set props – a V for Vendetta poster on Augustus’ bedroom wall, the Hectic Glow on Hazel’s. Some of the dominant questions from the book are missing from the film (not to mention entire characters), but it’s satisfying to see actress Shailene Woodley just as determined to demonstrate Hazel’s intense admiration for her parents as she does Hazel’s easy affection for Gus.
And while it felt like a misstep for her mother to give Hazel the dress she wears on her first official date with Gus – Hazel was supposed to have brought only one dress, and that’s why she goes to see Van Houten dressed instead as his novel’s main character, an important symbol in the book that is skewed in the film – these dull Hollywood plot devices can’t diminish the overall luminosity of The Fault in Our Stars. (Although it is hard for teens to make doe eyes at Augustus Waters with such dewy eyes.)
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