We are not usually in the demo for teen romances, so it took a long, long time for us to get around to seeing The Fault In Our Stars, which combines romance with tragedy. Indeed, the film had been out for over three months before I talked the kids into it, pointing out that the reviews were good and three months is a hell of a long time for any film to be playing.
It is good, despite many opportunities to be bad.
Consider: You have Hazel (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants, The Spectacular Now), a teenage girl with terminal but indefinitely suspended cancer who meets recovered one-legged conquer-the-world teenage boy Gus (newcomer Ansel Elgort, Carrie, Divergent), and the two fall in love despite Hazel’s determination to prevent that (to spare Gus’s feelings).
You have the opening that tells you this is not like all those other bullshit cancer stories, a make-a-wish style meeting with a great author (Willem Defoe), a visit to the Anne Frank museum, jaded teenager contempt/concern for parental units (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell)…I mean, you can see how disastrous this could be, right?
And yet it’s not.
It’s touching without being mawkish. It’s romantic without being romanticized. It doesn’t flinch from the awful details of cancer (and it’s horrific treatments) nor does it wallow in those things. It also kind of flips the script in the second act in a way that changes perspective on the whole story.
I’m inclined to credit newcomer director Josh Boone, and screenwriters Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber (who co-wrote The Spectacular Now and 500 Days of Summer) with this careful threading of delicate subject matter.
The acting is excellent as well. Woodley can act, as demonstrated in Spectacular, and I didn’t want to punch Elgort in the face, which is often the case for the “charming hero” in these teen movies. I didn’t even want to punch the comic-relief best-pal Isaac (Naked Brother Nat Wolff).
I had much the same reaction to this film as I did to The Spectacular Now, come to think of it, though I think this is a better film. In particular, as a teen movie, the kids are way less cartoonish than they are in the John Hughes-era films. Hell, not just the kids—the parents, everyone. Even Willem Dafoe’s ridiculously hot assistant Lotte Verbeek (“The Borgias”, “Outlander”) turns out to be kinder and have more depth than the role “foil-of-the-crotchety-writer” might suggest.
The shallowest character, actually, in the movie is the leader of the support group where Hazel and Gus (what about those names, by the way, are kids actually being named “Hazel” and “Gus” these days?), who is a guy (played by comedian Mike Birbiglia) who has parlayed his beating of cancer into a lifetime of living in his mother’s basement and doing a Christian outreach at the cancer support group.
Yeah, I rolled my eyes a little at that, but the character is well done, and it’s not like we don’t see most middle-aged (now called “young”) men as slackers these days.
Anyway, I and The Boy—not at all the target audience—liked it a lot, as did The Flower—who really should be the target audience by demographics, but isn’t by interest. Definitely worth checking out even if you’re not into this sort of thing, generally.