‘Pain demands to be felt,’ says teenage cancer sufferer Hazel (Shailene Woodley). And, in this weepy adaptation of John Green’s best selling young-adult novel, it certainly does. Hazel is quoting The Imperial Affliction, a book that ends in the middle of a sentence. A book she admires as the most accurate reflection of life with cancer.
Hazel’s thyroid cancer has spread to her lungs and, whilst incurable, is kept under control by trial medication and an oxygen tank. But it’s her relationship with Gus (Ansel Elgort), who’s already lost a leg to bone cancer, that drives this emotionally draining movie.
The Fault In Our Stars has a ready-made and loyal fanbase, largely due to Hazel and Gus who are resolutely more than just kids with cancer. They’re kids with ambitions, both large and small. Ambitions that include finding out what happens after their favourite book ends.
Ambitions that will take them on journey to Amsterdam and a breathtaking meeting with the author. Yet these simple dreams are a sage reminder that Gus and Hazel have their own fears about what will happen when they’re gone.
By drawing attention to cancer’s misrepresentation in fiction, The Fault In Our Stars sets itself up for the same kind of critical judgement. It’s a monumental challenge to make a film that feels honest about cancer - and rings true to those who have felt its sting - but it’s one that Stuck In Love Director, Josh Boone doesn’t shy from. And he’s helped by a cast that dig deep.
Much of the film’s credibility oozes from Shailene Woodley’s convincing performance that takes Hazel beyond the merely sweet territory of the rom-com, to the dynamic, conflicted and confused subject of a poignant drama. Hazel’s guilt runs deeper than the poetic dialogue Woodley delivers so assuredly, encompassing false smiles and a deep-seated desire to make each day better for her parents, gently but not irresponsibly masking the extent of her illness.
The Fault In Our Stars is bolstered too by Woodley’s chemistry with Laura Dern and Ansel Elgort. While Gus’ cocky, self assured nature is initially overpowering, Boone elicits a vulnerability from Elgort in his later scenes that resonate with this earlier, annoying bravado.
Yet it’s the acidic, biting performance from Willem Defoe that cuts right through the saccharine romance to bring deeper meaning to The Fault In Our Stars, making controversial arguments about society’s treatment of young people with cancer. Defoe’s appearance is brief but provides Boone’s film with a welcome edge.
Even so, behind the beautiful dialogue and endearing performances, there lies a stale, vapid side to The Fault In Our Stars - moments when Boone’s interpretation allows Hollywood to seep in. Gus’ bachelor-style basement room, complete with huge widescreen TV and gaming chairs, might nod to the over-indulgence of frightened parents, but gives
The Fault In Our Stars a glossy sheen that makes its teen subjects seem a little too grown-up. Later, Gus and Hazel sip champagne in an upmarket restaurant, in a taste of adult life they already seem too confident with. Add to this the portrayal of Gus’ friend with eye cancer, Isaac (Nat Wolff), as the film’s comedic escapism and Boone’s good work begins to come undone.
It’s on a romantic trip to Amsterdam where The Fault In Our Stars further unravels, taking its most cliche turn and giving us this year’s oddest cinematic moment. Much has been said elsewhere about the controversial Anne Frank scene that sees Hazel pull towards Gus and kiss him in none other than Anne Frank’s tragic hiding place. The crowd of onlooking tourists might be expected to deplore these young people as inappropriate and offensive but - for reasons unexplained and unclear on film - they applaud the couple instead. It’s blunt, cheesy and loses all of the subtle nuances of the source material.
Yes, we’ve seen Hazel struggle to climb the many, many stairs and we’ve heard Anne Frank’s diary - a symbol of young life lost - play out in the background, but the message is decidedly shaky. This uneasy moment will be a step too far for some viewers, this reviewer included.
It’s fortunate then that this Hollywood-style excursion is a brief sojourn in a largely coherent film whose schmaltzy offerings are frequently followed up with a good dose of substance. To its detriment, The Fault In Our Stars isn’t over until it’s unnecessarily yanked at our heart strings one last time in a brutal, manipulative and contrived church scene with our three main protagonists.
The Fault In Our Stars is inescapably weepy but this doesn’t make it a great film. It’s over-long, sporadically manipulative and occasionally dons a Hollywood sheen. The focus on telling an honest story could cripple a film based on lesser source material but, rescued by author John Green’s truthful observations about living with cancer from the last good day to the 1-10 pain scale, The Fault In Our Stars manages to remain sincere. But only just.
Running Time: 126 minutes