In January of 2012 a novel was released that took it's young-adult audience by storm. Written by John Green, the book focused on the tragic romance between two teenagers suffering from cancer, and less than a month after its release the rights to an adaptation were being optioned and the process of bringing the story from the page to the screen was already beginning.
The Fault in Our Stars
Josh Boone // 2014 // 126 mins
The Fault in Our Stars follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a sixteen year old suffering from stage 4 thyroid cancer. Compelled by her parents to attend a support group, there Hazel meets eighteen year old Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a charming, young man who lost one of his legs to osteosarcoma. The pair strike up an instant friendship that soon turns romantic, and as their relationship strengthens so does their desire to make the most of what time they have together.
The book has been praised for dealing with the sensitive subject matter of cancer without romanticising Hazel and Gus' afflictions and mortality, presenting us with a more realistic, no-nonsense depiction of how hard cancer is. While this approach is admirable it's success in the film is limited, as all that this 'truthful' depiction really amounts to is Hazel spending the entirety of the film wearing a breathing tube and occasional reminders that Gus only has one leg. Though there are a few rushes to the hospital or moments of difficulty for our protagonists these only really provide breaks in the narrative or amp up the drama of how fragile their relationship is, with most of the truly nasty realities glossed over or ignored in favour of scenes in which the young couple kissing is met with a slow-clap from everyone present.
In the films opening moments Hazel criticises the frequent sugarcoating of sad stories, declaring that these versions do not show us the truth, but assuring that her story does. The problem is that everything that follows this little speech does feel sugarcoated. Sure Hazel is a realist and acknowledges her cancer for the sh*tstorm that it is, and sure we probably see more of the conditions side-affects here than we would in other films that deal with it, but it is still as sickeningly sweet as any other teen romance. Gus is the amalgamation of every quality a teenage girl could want in her dream man, and nothing more. While I'm hopeful that the source novel must flesh out his character, in the restrictive runtime of the film Gus is reduced to little more than a transparent realisation of the perfect boy. He's attractive, witty, formerly athletic, a good listener, selfless, a virgin and speaks in a jarring, pseudo-intellectual dialect that I'm certain no eighteen year old would ever used non-ironically. Gus as a character is nothing more than wish fulfilment for every one of the young girls that this film is made for, and this prevents us from ever seeing him as a fully realised, non-sugarcoated character.
Fortunately the young leads manage to dig through all of this overly-sentimental mush and deliver two enjoyable and engaging performances. Even at their most nauseatingly loved-up, Woodley is still incredibly sweet and Elgort is still incredibly charming. The pair manage to win us over in spite of the horribly written dialogue and in spite of a story that ticks off every cliché that it can, and this helps the emotional conclusion to carry an actual impact. Laura Dern also gives a strong performance as Hazel's worrisome, protective mother while Willem Dafoe hams it up to near-villainous levels as the alcoholic author and Hazel's idol Van Houten. The few strong performances are what save this film from buckling under itself, injecting real emotions into an otherwise hollow experience and allowing a small number of truly touching, uplifting and heart-breaking moments.
Normally I would not scrutinise what is essentially a harmless teen romance so heavily. It is this film's self-assured attitude that it is not a typical teen romance though - that it is somehow superior to all others - that fuels my frustration with the film. As a sweet, emotionally charged teen romance it succeeds on many levels, but that is exactly the type of film that The Fault in Our Stars refuses to accept itself as. The over-written and pretentious script let down the film as the writers, be it John Green with his novel or Neustadter and Weber with their screenplay, try much to hard to defy our pre-conceptions and claim some kind of superiority over the entire genre, rather than embracing what they are making and doing that well.