The Fault in Our Stars is a wonderfully constructed teenage romance, featuring a fantastic central performance from Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old cancer patient dealing with her own mortality. She bumps into Augustus Waters at a support group meeting. Augustus is another survivor, and the two immediately hit it off. While The Fault in Our Stars is fairly predictable, and hits relentlessly on the expected emotional beats, Woodley’s performance is strong enough to elevate the film.
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s adaptation of John Green’s best-selling novel avoids wallowing too heavily in melodrama. Despite a few missteps, The Fault in Our Stars feels like a much more genuine and thoughtful exploration of loss and tragedy than films like My Sister’s Keeper or Death of a Superhero or Now is Good.
The Fault in Our Stars offers a familiar narrative. We are introduced to a teenager with a very short life expectancy. Hazel Grace Lancaster is introduced living on borrowed time, a fact she readily acknowledges. Carrying around a portable oxygen tank to help her lungs cope, Hazel knows that she was lucky to get the years that she has had. Inevitably, Hazel falls in love. The flirtation is sweet and guarded, and the movie is ruthless in its applications of the expected cancer movie clichés.
However, The Fault in Our Stars is elevated by a number of shrewd choices. Most obviously, Woodley is phenomenal as Hazel, a character who could easily become a cliché. Woodley instead imbues her with a practised worldliness. There’s a sense that Hazel is just as cynical about the familiar “terminal kid” clichés as anybody in the audience. Woodley effortless delivers narration that could seem trite or overcooked, but instead feels strangely personal and intimate.
Of course, Woodley is surrounded by a wonderful cast. Laura Dern is fantastic as Hazel’s mother, a woman trying to put on a brave front in the face of a parental nightmare. It’s an understated and effective performance, one that enhances the film around it without ever taking the centre stage. The focus of The Fault in Our Stars is very much on Hazel, as it should be. However, the film consciously and repeatedly reminds the audience that there are always people left behind.
Woodley is assisted by a script that is wise enough to be selective in its melodrama. Movies about kids suffering from terminal illnesses are always going to struggle with these sorts of heavy-handed touches and twists – it’s very easy to make the audience cynical by overplaying a hand. The Fault in Our Stars contains a couple of big melodramatic moments, but it paces itself. Realising that these bigger moments will draw the expected response, the movie is surprisingly matter-of-fact about a lot of things.
Hazel acknowledges the cancer story clichés like “the last good day” upfront and candidly; the film doesn’t treat every health hiccup as the end of the world, accepting that some scares will be much worse than others; the script acknowledges the difference that exists between the narratives we construct around illness and the reality of illness, even as it plays into some of those same narratives.
Indeed, the movie only gets the balance wrong a couple of times, feeling most forced during a trip to Amsterdam. Feeling guilty about an appointment that went horribly wrong, Lidewij Vliegenthart tries to make it up to the two teenagers who have travelled all the way from America. In a city with a wide range of canals, art galleries, museums and heritage, Vliegenthart decides that it will be a good idea to invite the two teenage cancer patients to visit the Anne Frank House.
Just in case the heavy-handed symbolism wasn’t enough, the movie goes all-in. Despite living in Amsterdam, Vliegenthart is somehow unaware that that the Anne Frank House doesn’t have an elevator. So the audience is treated to an extended sequence of Hazel struggling to catch her breath as she pulls her oxygen cannister up to the top of the Anne Frank House. It’s easily the most absurdly patronisingly on-the-nose moment in the script, the perfect demonstration of all the awkward metaphors that films about child mortality that The Fault in Our Stars had skilfully avoided up until that point.
It’s a moment that weakens The Fault in Our Stars, but it also underscores the tightrope that the rest of the film walks so well. It demonstrates how easy it is to tip over from genuine emotional engagement into patronising cynicism. The fact that the Amsterdam sequences feel so awkward and trite makes it more apparent how carefully the rest of the film has been crafted. It’s a moment that rings false and cliché, while the rest of the movie strikes the right notes.
The Fault in Our Stars is the best film of its kind produced in the last few years. It avoids the mistakes and errors in judgement that seem to come