The film adaptation of John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars is nothing short of obliterating, but not in the way you might think. Yes, it’s a portrait of people with terminal cancer, and yes, it’s also a teenage love story, but it’s so much more than that, too.
The reality that cancer patient Hazel Grace Lancaster (played by the superb-as-usual Shailene Woodley) faces is one that would almost certainly elicit pity from a casual observer, but in this story, we are let into her world, where we see not only her considerable weaknesses but also her boundless intelligence, strength and energy. There is something subdued about Woodley’s performance here, which at first might feel lackluster, but soon it becomes clear: this is a girl who battles just to take a breath, yet ends up traveling across the globe and, oh yeah, falling head over heels in love.
Ansel Elgort (who, curiously, plays Shai’s brother in the Divergent series) serves as Hazel’s dashing love interest Gus, and if this film were to have an…er, fault, it’s that he is a little too perfect, immediately besotted with and supportive of Hazel and never once veering from that path. His veneer cracks only once, in a powerful scene where his illness becomes too much for him to manage, and it gives him a deeper level of authenticity that could have come sooner. But he is still brilliant in the role of a young man refusing to believe his body is about to totally reject him, and his chemistry with Shailene is palpable.
What makes The Fault In Our Stars truly different is its sense of inevitability: frank voiceovers and dialogue about death and fate make it feel quite literary, and not only in that it’s based on a book. We’re talking literary in the age-old, tragicomic classic sense of the word. Hazel is someone who can appreciate the poetry of “dying in the middle of a sentence”—she obsessively reads and rereads a particular book with a rather abrupt ending, and her questions about what happens to the characters after that conclusion are what propel her own story forward.
As for the collection of strong supporting players, Nat Wolff (a rising star to watch—also excellent in Palo Alto) provides some much needed comic relief as Gus’s best friend, and Laura Dern does an amazing job, also as usual, portraying Hazel’s mother. The relationship between Hazel and her mother is particularly strong and nuanced in this film, showing the complexities of what it means to have a sick family member but at the same time how ‘regular’ issues can come up too. A small but arresting scene shows Hazel staring at her parents as they hold hands while receiving bad news about her from the doctor; at the same time, she flashes back to a particularly dire moment when, confronted with her daughter’s seemingly imminent death, her mom cries, “I’m not going to be a mother anymore.” Even though Mrs. Lancaster has the best of intentions, she is only human and at some point makes the situation about herself. It underscores the alienation and distance that can occur even when a family member tries to be supportive, and it’s another instance of Hazel’s remarkable ability to rise above and see things as they are.
In the end, watching as Hazel and Gus live their whole lives in such a limited amount of time gives the viewer a dizzying sense of joy, dread, hope and despair all at once. Literary indeed, in the best sense of the term.