‘The Fault in Our Stars’ Is Beautifully Tragic
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…” Shakespeare’s eloquent words from Julius Caesar serve as the inspiration for the title The Fault in Our Stars, and capture a dilemma that all people face, but which few realize.
This is a problem that Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl with cancer and the movie’s heroine, knows all too well: nothing is guaranteed in this life. All we are assured are moments, and it’s our prerogative to seize these countless chances and live life — however long that may be — to its fullest.
Told beautifully through director Josh Boone’s eyes, and based on the equally heartwarming and tragic novel written by acclaimed author John Green (Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns), The Fault in Our Stars narrates the real, honest and unassuming love story of two star-crossed cancer patients who embrace their rotten luck in life, while also dreaming of its infinite possibilities.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) introduces the film as the hip, angry, sarcastic narrator, and considering her situation, she is surprisingly funny and upbeat. Suffering from thyroid cancer that has calamitously spread to her lungs, she wittily describes herself as the “Keith Richards of cancer patients,” and accepts the grim reality of her circumstances — consisting of an enormous daily dose of pills, going to doctor’s appointments and sitting at home watching reality television.
But her uneventful routine is gladly knocked off kilter when she catches the eye of Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a former basketball player who lost his leg to osteosarcoma (but is now a year in remission), at a support group for cancer kids in Indianapolis — oddly enough, meetings that Hazel loathed and was forced to attend.
Augustus’ charming wit, confidence and outspoken personality is adorable enough to attract the attention of any girl. They soon form a fast friendship and bond over Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten — about a girl with cancer — which maddeningly ends mid-sentence. Hazel is obsessed with finding out what happened to the characters, and Augustus too becomes riveted, so much so that they soon embark on an unexpected journey to get to the bottom of it.
Before even getting to this point, they first go through the usual ritual beginnings of any new relationship: waiting for the guy to call (while pretending not to care) as well as flirtatious texting and talking on the phone all night — ironically the types of romantic clichés that the narrator mocks.
Normally, this overdone sequence of events could come off as nauseatingly generic and reminiscent of one too many chick flicks. But with this brilliantly refreshing screenplay and Boone’s simplistic directing abilities — appropriately letting the story tell itself without embellishment — Hazel and Augustus’ playful and fun relationship can only be described as endearing.
And for a story with the inevitable somber undertone that accompanies any mention of cancer, this narration is not only romantic, but also offers an unexpectedly hopeful outlook as well as a bundle of laughs. That sore, burning sensation you feel in your cheeks after smiling nonstop can mostly be attributed to Augustus Waters and his theatrical humor as well as his blatant displays of affection for Hazel (who he always refers to as “Hazel Grace,” and she him as “Augustus,” rather than “Gus” like his friends do).
But Gus’ playful banter is not the only humor this movie has to offer. His quirky best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) — who eventually goes blind in both eyes — brings his own humorous flare to the table. Though his supporting role regrettably has more of a presence in the novel, his bits in the film, particularly when he’s bashing his ex-girlfriend, are ridiculously fun. (The scene when he takes his anger out on her by breaking Augustus’ plastic basketball trophies or blindly egging her car are sure to make anyone laugh out loud).
However amusing this comic relief is, the audience can also depend on more true-to-life personalities to balance out the cast. Hazel’s parents (played by Laura Dern and True Blood’s Sam Trammell) are the reliable rocks in this girl’s unkind life. Quirky and cool, they are solid supporting roles in the film. The characters, true of any parent with a sick child, are overly protective and naively optimistic about their daughter’s situation, making for some more serious conversations.
Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster aren’t the only ones responsible for bringing this story back down to Earth. One eulogy scene in particular will have you grabbing for the tissue box, as it breaks down walls and puts Hazel and Gus at their most emotionally vulnerable.
Despite the tragic realism of a story about cancer, The Fault in Our Stars is a romantic comedy at heart. But true to real life, a good thing never lasts, and the picture is all the more poignant for its candor about the medical realities of being sick.
We soon learn how Gus’ illness has forced him to confront life and death, and his fears of falling into oblivion. Though he eventually bares it all and sheds his confident façade, his humanity and vulnerability make him all the more loveable.
Even without such somber moments, it’s clear from the get-go that The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t sugarcoat anything. There are no rainbows or Peter Gabriel songs to blanket the truth. If there were, the story and the film’s integrity would be compromised.
Its authenticity can be attributed in large part to Woodley and Elgort’s on-screen chemistry and superb acting abilities, allowing them to deliver each line with such uplifting honesty that they breathe life into the story. Their experience together in Divergent clearly made them more comfortable around one another this time around, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing these characters. Elgort is simply captivating and Woodley’s naturalistic charm, in particular, makes this her best performance yet. Though her role in The Descendants comes in a close second, The Fault in Our Stars better showcases her emotional range and raw talent.
Overall, The Fault in Our Stars is heartfelt but never mawkish. Compared to other sappy love stories also dealing with cancer — like A Walk to Remember or Love Story — this is a refreshingly original outlook on what could easily turn into a sob fest. Despite a few missteps — Boone favors one too many close-ups and, though charming, Augustus is written as a little too perfect to be considered a real person — it gets everything right about being alive and young and in love for the first time.
The world is not a wish-granting factory, as Hazel and Gus often remind each other. Nevertheless, life doesn’t have to be perfect to be extraordinary. And for Hazel and Gus, that’s okay.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
Video courtesy of 20th Century Fox.