With Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe . Directed by Josh Boone. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language. 125 minutes.
There’s an old Hollywood saw that goes, “This is a town where people want to be first in line to be second.” Originality is dangerous, you see, but if you are the first to hop on the bandwagon started by someone else you just might succeed. Which brings us to what may soon become one of the most talked about trends in movies and television in 2014: romantic dramas about people with cancer.
Joining “Chasing Life” on ABC Family and “Red Band Society” on FOX this fall, is the feature film THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, based on the novel by John Green. You will laugh. You will cry. You will be surprised that a movie this manipulative is the best teenage love story so far this year.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) developed thyroid cancer young and came near death. She has been responding to an experimental treatment that hasn’t worked for many others, but she knows there are no guarantees for the future. Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) are loving and supportive but are afraid that Hazel is sinking into depression. At her mother’s insistence, Hazel joins a church support group for teenagers with cancer.
There she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), who has already lost a foot and part of his leg to the disease. Gus and Hazel hit it off because they not only share the sense of being on borrowed time, but have developed a sardonic sense of humor about it. When she shares her favorite book–a novel about someone dying of cancer–with him, he wants to know if there are any zombies in it. Told there are not, he loans her his favorite book–a novelization based on a video game about zombies.
As played by Woodley and Elgort, Hazel and Gus are sympathetic without asking for our sympathy. They want to live the best lives they can, and are blunt about the challenges they face both medically and socially. They’re feisty without being in-your-face, and they don’t take themselves too seriously. Given how teenagers are usually depicted in current movies–whether abusing drugs and alcohol or obsessing about sex–the two performances here are breath of fresh air.
In the adult roles, Laura Dern and Sam Trammell play characters who are a bit too idealized, but both get their moments to let the cracks show. Willem Dafoe turns up as the author of Hazel’s favorite book, and while Hazel and Gus making a pilgrimage to meet him in Amsterdam seems a bit of a plot contrivance, Dafoe and similarly refuses to sugarcoat the character. Gus’s parents are barely sketched in, which is unfortunate.
Perhaps the amazing thing about “The Fault In Our Stars” is that it’s a movie that spends two hours pushing our buttons and it still works. Even as we know what the filmmakers are doing, we still buy it for the simple reason that the movie respects both its characters and the audience. One would have to have a heart of stone not to get caught up in Hazel and Gus’s love story, even if cancer wasn’t a factor. This may not be great drama, but it is very satisfying melodrama. The people behind those television series–and others to come if that’s the case–would do well to pay attention.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.