To paraphrase Shakespeare (badly): If you place cancer kids in front of me, will I not cry? What human being with an ounce of empathy would not be touched deeply at the sight of a terminally-ill person, especially a child or teenager?
Most everyone on Earth has lost a loved one to cancer or some other horrible disease, myself included multiple times over, so any movie that declares it, and it alone, intends to "tell the truth" about terminally-ill cancer kids is courting disaster. Foolhardy as it may be for Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) to declare that sentiment in the opening moments of The Fault in Our Stars, however, it reveals something essential about her character: she seeks the truth with resolute zeal, despite the illness that often takes away her breath, requires her to use a portable oxygen tank, and will kill her, sooner rather than later.
Based on an immensely popular novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars has been adapted for the screen with an apparent respect for the source material by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the writers of the above-average romantic comedy/dramas (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. (Though I've not read the book, a quick internet search suggests many lines of dialogue are lifted verbatim from it.) Hazel's mother (Laura Dern) insists that she attend a cancer support group, where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), who has come in support of his best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). Gus had cancer as well, but amputation of his leg has spared his life, while Isaac has already lost one eye and will, very soon, lose his other eye too.
Sharing a pragmatic view of life and a similar sense of humor, Hazel and Gus are drawn to one another. Gus also falls in love with Hazel's favorite book, a novel about a little girl with cancer, written by Peter Van Houten, an author who now lives in seclusion in Amsterdam. In no time, Gus has done the impossible and tracked down Van Houten, initiating an email correspondence that is soon joined by Hazel. Meanwhile, Hazel has pulled back a bit from Gus, resisting the idea of a romantic relationship for fear Gus would be even more devastated by her death.
The inherent poignancy of the situation tugs hard at the heart strings. While it's filled with empathy for the characters, the narrative is also baldly manipulative, not only in the timing of the relationship between Hazel and Gus -- 'Oh, great! I don't find my one true love UNTIL I'M DYING?! Thanks, universe!' -- but also in the entire scenario that is created between Hazel, Gus, and Van Houten, which practically screams out: 'I am a plot device. Look out for ironic twists ahead.'
Cutting pages from a book and pasting them on screen may assure that fans of the novel will be pleased, but director Josh Boone displays little interest in making the film come alive beyond the words that are enacted. While everything looks absolutely lovely, thanks to director of photography Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Drinking Buddies), Boone frames nearly every scene in close-ups or medium shots, much like an old network television soap opera; it's evidently intended to maximize the emotional effect, but instead flattens the tone. What begins as a recognition of individuality becomes the tyranny of conformity: if you don't cry, there must be something wrong with you.
Certainly tears are part of the grieving / healing / accepting process, but tear-jerking by filmmakers is not enough to make up for deficiencies elsewhere, any more than an abundance of terrific action choreography makes up for a lack of character development in a martial arts movie. Of course, as a viewer, sometimes all I want is great action, and I'm willing to overlook glaring weaknesses in the plot and/or performances.
With that in mind, The Fault in Our Stars is competent and respectful, and features a noteworthy performance by Shailene Woodley, who nails every moment with grace and precision. Bring your handkerchiefs.
The films opens in theaters wide across North America on Friday, June 6. Visit the official site for more information.