Unfamiliar with John Green’s acclaimed novel of the same name, I went into The Fault in Our Stars entirely clueless, which is the best way to experience a movie that rocks your world. I can now surmise this much about the book as well, which has sold more than 10 million copies and earned universal acclaim: it puts the adult in “young adult” fiction. Impossibly, it’s chock full of melodrama but feels entirely true to life; it’s schmaltzy and saccharin sweet but there’s nothing sugarcoated about it. Set aside your concerns that cinemas will be overrun with #tfios-tweeting tweens this weekend, and don’t dismiss it as just another teen movie. If you can, reject the cynicism and jadedness of adulthood and accept that The Fault in Our Stars is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, and arguably the most life-affirming film of the year.
Director: Josh Boone
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, John Green (book)
Cinematographer: Ben Richardson
Editor: Robb Sullivan
Music: Mike Mogis, Nate Walcott
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Randy Kovitz, Toni Saldana, David Whalen, Milica Govich
US Theatrical Release: June 2, 2014
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Taking its title from the first act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, The Fault in Our Stars is a $12 million tragicomedy that has a much bigger heart, and much more to say about life’s hardest lessons, than the vast majority of Hollywood’s star-studded Big Important Movies. After The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and The Spectacular Now (2013), its arrival marks the coronation of a new golden age in teen movies that hasn’t been seen since John Hughes ruled the genre nearly 30 years ago. (Meanwhile, my generation suffered through the Clueless/Can’t Hardly Wait/She’s All That/I Know What You Did Last Summer era.)
We don’t have a new John Hughes, but we do have rising screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, who evidently turn to gold all source material they touch, having also adapted The Spectacular Now and (500) Days of Summer. The Fault in Our Stars is darker, heavier material: chronic disease normally does not win the at the box-office (even the cheekily-marketed 50/50 struggled in theaters). But the characters here are so well-written and the ensemble acting is so appropriately pitched that the dread of it all never suffocates the fragile hope and positivity that underpins the story. Most impressively, the script strikes a balance between respecting the intelligence and maturity of 18-year olds while still indulging in the naivety and innocence of youth. I think Hughes would stand up and cheer for this movie.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) warns us in her opening narration that The Fault In Our Stars will not be as bittersweetly romantic as Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. She’s a sardonic 16-year old with Stage 4 cancer and a clear-eyed view of her uncertain future—Juno MacGuff but living in the real world with real problems (and a real vocabulary). At a cancer support group, Hazel catches the eye of Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), a disarmingly cheerful cancer survivor whose persistent courtship of her changes both of their lives, dramatically and devastatingly forever.
Among other shared interests, Hazel and Gus obsess over An Imperial Affliction, a poignant novel about a young cancer patient written by the (fictional) Dutch author Thomas Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). The book offers the teens, particularly Hazel, the most realistic depiction of what life feels like under the ominous cloud of death. Their search for deeper meaning in the book’s ambiguous ending, and ultimately their own endings, brings them to Amsterdam for an unforgettable meeting with Van Houten, a drunk lout who talks as if he’s playing Cards Against Humanity.
It’s around this time that The Fault in Our Stars turns a foreboding corner and in its last hour Hazel’s dire warning is borne out. A story about cancer-stricken teens is an almost unprecedented strike across the emotional bow, and the film’s coda is nearly too much to bear (eventually you don’t even understand why you’re crying, and why you can’t stop). And yet despite it all, you don’t feel emotionally exploited. Upper-class white teenagers from middle America are among the most privileged people in the world, but they do get cancer, and they do fall in love, and they do experience astonishing pain, and it’s all entirely, terribly real. In an interview last year with The Atlantic, Green explained the inspiration for his love story for the ages: "I think generally we have a habit of imagining the very sick or the dying as being kind of fundamentally other. I guess I wanted to argue for their humanity, their complete humanity." Mission accomplished, and then some.
That The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own sentimentality is a testament not only to the writing, but to the acting by its young cast, directed by Josh Boone. Having played the daughter of a cancer patient (The Descendants) and the girlfriend of an angsty teen (The Spectacular Now), supernova Shailene Woodley is perfectly equipped to play an angsty teen cancer patient. She reportedly lobbied intensely to be cast in this role, and it certainly helps that she can explore the emotional deep end with Elgort, her costar in the Divergent film trilogy. For his part Elgort turns the Prince Charming act up to 11, but even that, in the context of the spectacular awkwardness that is the teen hormonal tango, feels honest to the character of Gus. As Hazel’s earnestly overbearing mother, Laura Dern delivers her best acting in at least a decade, and newcomer Nat Wolff demonstrates that if he is not ready to carry a film on his own just yet, he’s overly qualified for only a supporting role.
Together, the cast carries a massive emotional burden and collectively never strike a false note. And on the subject of notes, a special nod should also be given to The Fault in Our Stars’ radio-friendly soundtrack, the most painfully hip compilation since Garden State. Featuring a gaggle of indie folk and rock artists, several of whom wrote original songs for the film, it’s an instantly classic collection sure to be heard playing on repeat in freshman dorms this fall.
If my enthusiasm for The Fault in Our Stars seems excessive, consider the fact that I’m a 15-year old girl. Just kidding. As I said, I haven’t read the book and can’t fairly judge a.) how well the film represents the original story and characters; and b.) how much of an emotional wallop it carries for those who already know the outcome. But on its own merits, as a stand-alone teenage film about life, death, and love, The Fault in Our Stars is a tonic to the toxicity in the world, and an eye-opening lesson on finding joy in so many of life’s painful moments. Call me Pollyanna, but this is exactly the kind of movie that, when seen at the right time in a young person’s life, has the potential to completely change their outlook on the world.