MOVIE REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars

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to stars2 REUTERS Talk show host and actress Chelsea Handler arrives as a guest at the 20th anniversary of ELLE Women in Hollywood event in Los Angeles October 21, 2013. The event, hosted by ELLE magazine, honors women who have had a profound impact on the film industry. REUTERS/Fred Prouser (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT MEDIA)

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

DIRECTOR: Josh Boone

CAST: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe

CLASSIFICATION: 10-12 PG L

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

RATING: ****

 

With interest in adapting John Green’s fourth novel running high even before its 2012 release atop The New York Times bestseller list, the film rights were snatched up by Twilight producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen in what could have been a “be careful what you wish for” moment.

With the book’s millions of fans eagerly awaiting the movie’s release, the distinct risk of blowback was practically built into the project.

Fortunately, director Josh Boone and his film-making team appear to have minimised the downside – in part by casting fast-rising star Shailene Woodley in the lead, along with her Divergent franchise co-star Ansel Elgort.

Both are likely to be strong selling points with the film’s youth-skewing target audience, which is being softened up by a robust marketing campaign and Green’s substantial social media presence.

With few similar distractions in cinemas, The Fault in Our Stars should perform strongly out of the gate, with the potential to show significant staying power.

If any teenager can reasonably be described as “ordinary”, then 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is far from it. A cancer survivor since the age of 13, she has a keen intelligence and sharp wit, if not her health – a challenging combination for a kid who could clearly do with a few more friends than she has.

Instead, her most constant companions are the oxygen tank connected to the breathing tube that supports her seriously compro- mised lungs, along with her concerned mother, Frannie (Dern), and protective father, Michael (Trammell).

Hazel gets a chance to branch out when, at the urging of her mom and her doctor, she joins an often-lame, though occasionally amusing, church-based cancer-survivor support group, where she meets 18-year-old Augustus “Gus” Waters (Elgort), an equally precocious teen with a rather more constructive outlook than Hazel’s.

He has lost a leg to cancer, but his disease is in remission and he’s dreaming of new ways to conquer the world, along with his best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who’s also battling the affliction.

Irreverent rather than cynical, he freely shares that he intends to “live an extraordinary life” and bonds with Hazel over her favourite book, An Imperial Affliction, written by Dutch-American author Peter Van Houten (Dafoe), and which happens to be about living with cancer.

Hazel is borderline obsessed with contacting the elusive Van Houten, but he does not respond to her missives, so it’s a bit shocking when the writer’s assistant replies to an e-mail from Gus soliciting information about Van Houten’s book.

Then Hazel gets a message from Van Houten – and the author invites her to visit him if she is ever in Amsterdam.

Hazel and Gus, who often insists on calling her “Hazel Grace”, quickly cook up a plan to make the trip. But it’s nixed by Hazel’s doctors and parents, concerned that the stress of the journey will strain her lungs and disrupt the experimental cancer drug treatment she depends on for her survival.

Meanwhile, Gus is falling hard for Hazel, who is fairly smitten herself, but as her condition worsens, she pulls back, telling Gus: “I’m a grenade and one day I’m going to explode and obliterate everything in my wake.”

Undeterred, he counters that her withdrawal doesn’t lessen his affection for her. And when he finds an unexpected method of funding their travel, the plan is back on again. As both teens face suddenly critical health issues, however, the outcome of the trip and their increasingly romantic relationship becomes more uncertain.

The greatest strengths of the film clearly come from Green’s novel, which resolutely refuses to become a clichéd cancer drama, creating instead two vibrant, believable young characters filled with humour and intelligence, both facing complex questions and issues unimaginable even to people twice their age.

Turning the screenwriting over to adaptation experts Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber has preserved the distinctly literate tone of the book, even if they do occasionally deliver scenes that feel overwrought.

The script makes an excellent fit for Woodley, whose feature film career took off with The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, two similarly smart, self-aware films.

Woodley’s wise and accomplished take on Hazel Lancaster will resonate with those inclined to view the world with a measure of scepticism, although they may also be resistant to the prospect of romance entering her life.

By dint of ample charm and considerable insight, Elgort’s Gus is more than a foil for Hazel’s self-doubt – he offers her the oppor- tunity to mould all her hope and frustration into a fully three-dimensional, transcendent emotional experience, whether or not she wants to call that “love”.

As Hazel’s protective but practical parents, Dern and Trammell display a realistic degree of concern without completely smothering her, and when crisis erupts, their instinctual compassion quickly restores calm.

Wolff, whose character loses his eyes to cancer, provides some suitably dark humour, although it’s left to Dafoe as the acerbic author whose young daughter succumbed to the disease to deftly deliver the film’s least reassuring perspective.

Boone’s appropriately light touch emphasises the underlying literary material, foregrounding the performances with occasional underplayed visual humour and reserving stylistic nuance for more contemplative scenes, attractively framed by cinematographer Ben Richardson.

Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott’s score somewhat literally underlines the overly insistent, folky-leaning soundtrack selections from Tom Odell, Lykke Li, Ray LaMontagne and others. – Hollywood Reporter

If you liked 50/50 or The Perks of Being a Wallflower you will like this.


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