Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Fault In Our Stars / *** (PG-13)

Hazel: Shailene Woodley
Gus: Ansel Elgort
Frannie: Laura Dern
Michael: Sam Tremmell
Isaac: Nat Wolff
Van Houten: Willem Dafoe

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Josh Boone. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber. Based on the novel by John Green. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language).

You’ve seen this story before. A young person is diagnosed with a terminal illness. She hasn’t had a chance to live life or even grow up, and she’s already facing death. She meets someone who not only changes her life, but her perspective on life, and she can face her fate with more dignity than before. Yes, it’s been done before; but here, it is not only done well, but it contains a surprising twist and touches upon something that these stories often don’t. The afflicted person is not the only person in her scenario. There are others in her life that care for her and adjust their own lives for her affliction, and the most important thing for the person who is dying is that her death affect those around her as little as possible, which is just simply not possible.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is based on the whirlwind best-selling novel by John Green. It tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, diagnosed with cancer at the age of 13, now 16, having long outlived her life expectancy due to an experimental procedure that has failed in most of its subjects. She requires a portable oxygen tank to breathe adequately. Portrayed by Shailene Woodley (“The Descendents”), Hazel might just be a little too beautiful for her own narration, which claims that this is not a story about beautiful people dying in a Hollywood way. Perhaps we can let that slip, however, since Woodley does such a good job conveying Hazel’s down to Earth nature about her situation. She doesn’t have much hope, but she still sees things clearer than those not in her shoes.

Despite her protest to her parents that she is not depressed, her mother forces her to attend a support group. There she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor after having his leg amputated. Gus has passion for life unmatched by most people unafflicted by incurable or crippling disease, even though it also cost him a promising future in sports. The relatively unknown Ansel Elgort also breaks the story’s own rule of not being about beautiful people by looking strikingly like a young Jeff Bridges. His manner and charm also gives the impression of a young Bridges and so can make you forget about the contradiction in the storytelling. It’s no surprise that the two end up falling for each other despite the unlikelihood of a happy ending.

Director Josh Boone and the writers do an interesting thing with Hazel’s parents. There’s the risk of making them look like monsters or martyrs here. While Boone dabbles with the possibility of painting them as monsters; it’s just a tease. The script ultimately treats them as real people, whose hopes and dreams are crushed by what fate had and still likely will have in store for their daughter; but they love her, would do anything for her, while still retaining the impression of feeling cheated for themselves of having a healthy daughter. Laura Dern and Sam Tremmell do a careful balancing act here, and come out of it looking more human and more involved than most parents in such Hollywood treatments.

Boone also allows some flourishes in his treatment of the material. His depiction of the text messages shared between Hazel and Gus is cute and appropriate considering their ages and the flirtatious nature of their relationship. He captures that sense of awe that young people exude as they present their findings on the world to others. The way Gus finds poetic realization in a park where kids play on a giant depiction of a skeleton carries the exact weight it would for a young man of his age, even though it’s irony might seem merely obvious to someone of more maturity.

The film is not without its faults however. First, there is the narration’s opening declaration that this isn’t a story that you would see in a book or a movie, when it is in fact it was a book and now is a movie. I’m sorry, but such a line never should’ve made it to the final draft. The movie’s ideology also gets a little muddled when Hazel and Gus get the opportunity to confront a man who wrote a novel that inspired them through their illnesses. I think it would’ve been stronger to focus on what Hazel was really searching for in her desire to have certain questions answered about the book than to throw in the writer’s embittered pseudo-psychology about the inequities of life into the mix. Despite his obvious intelligence, his muddled lessons about life’s injustices are quite obvious. And finally, does any filmmaker really believe that the slow clap—the cinematic cliché where a group of people start clapping slowly and build to a full applause when they witness an inspirational moment in the story—can be sincerely used to signal a moment of dramatic importance anymore? Obviously Boone does, but here it just serves to take the audience out of the moment.

Despite the missteps, “The Fault in Our Stars” is an effective treatment of this romantic tragedy formula. It serves to point out a couple of aspects about living with a fatal disease that I haven’t seen before. It effectively uses its talented young leads to convey the comedy and tragedy of these unfortunate circumstances, and it bears the emotional weight necessary for its story. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll curse the existence of cancer.

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