Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (Josh Boone, 2014)

A billion or so years from now the sun will expand into a red giant and wipe out any existence of this planet, so what does anything matter in the long run? Feeling like everything is ultimately futile isn’t just the province of teenagers, but a place of existential despair can seem like home to those going through life’s most dramatic changes. If that teenager has terminal cancer, being obsessed with future doom is a natural impulse, although probably not the most mentally healthy preoccupation.

In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS 17-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is one of those unfortunate kids searching for hope in the face of hopelessness. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was thirteen and nearly died. An experimental trial worked for her, but the cancer spread to her lungs. She seems to get by fine day to day, but having stage 4 cancer, there’s no doubt how her story will end.

Her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) thinks Hazel is depressed and encourages her to attend a support group at the local Episcopal church in Indianapolis. There she meets 18-year-old Augustus Water (Ansel Elgort), who lost his right leg just above the knee but seems uncommonly enthusiastic about life. Although Hazel is a little put off by Gus’s aggressive flirting, she finds him intriguing. He wins points with her by agreeing to read her favorite book, a heavy piece of literature about a girl with cancer that isn’t something he would ordinarily bother with. The novel and its reclusive author become things for them to bond over and form a friendship that might lead to romance if Hazel will allow it.

Based on John Green’s popular young adult novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS hinges on the performances and tone. Woodley, who has impressed in THE DESCENDANTS and THE SPECTACULAR NOW, does well playing a character who wants to minimize others’ pain often at the expense of bringing her more emotional hurt. She invests Hazel with an independent streak that keeps her from suffering without a fight or giving in to the first cute boy who pays her attention, yet she’s not so tough that she’s closed off. Woodley’s big scene comes with a speech that she delivers at a pre-funeral, yet her best moment may come when she’s again shoving down her feelings and putting on a brave face for others toward the film’s end. Elgort plays Gus with unlimited confidence and eagerness, which can come off as borderline creepy, but his openness makes it understandable why Hazel might find relief with him from her dark thoughts.

Although THE FAULT IN OUR STARS prettifies characters in their health states, it is notable for the frankness with which the teenagers talk about their diseases. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and director Josh Boone leave the specter of death looming while coaxing Hazel and Gus to enjoy the time they will have together, no matter how short it might be. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS provides space for anger and joy to be justified and relished and does so without getting sentimental in a cheaply manipulative way. Boone pulls off a feat in managing to make a first kiss in the Anne Frank House not seem gross, although he undercuts the accomplishment with a weird choice to have the bystanders applaud. As in his first film STUCK IN LOVE Boone relies too much on using an indie soundtrack to emphasize the narrative’s mood. The film hits some uneven sections when it seems to be wandering afield in the Netherlands but finds its stride with a really strong final forty minutes.

Gus desires to be remembered while Hazel wants what exists around her to persist when she’s gone. Both are far too young to carry such weighty concerns, but the journey, viewed from Hazel’s perspective, touches with how she chooses to face it head on. Obsessing over death and preempting relationships to prevent others from feeling the pain of losing her are ways of coping but ones that Hazel discovers help nobody. True, one day this world will no longer be here, but what is important is the connections that make things matter until then.

Grade: B

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