In the voiceover narration at the beginning of The Fault In Our Stars, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) explains there are two ways to tell her story. One is the sugar-coated version, where everything can be worked out by playing a Peter Gabriel song, and the other is the messy truth. There isn’t a single Peter Gabriel song in this movie’s soundtrack, but there is plenty of messy truth.
Hazel has been living with cancer for years, and almost died when she a pre-teen. A drug trial miraculously extended her life, but she knows that she is terminal. An oxygen tank to support her compromised lungs is Hazel’s constant companion, and minor exertions can wipe her out. Her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) worries that she’s depressed because she keeps reading the same book, “An Imperial Affliction” by Peter Van Houten. To Hazel, the book is simply the one novel that treats cancer honestly. At the behest of Frannie and her father, Michael (Sam Trammell), Hazel attends a cancer support group for teens and twenty-somethings.
Hazel isn’t impressed with the group, but then she runs into (physically) Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). Augustus is a cancer survivor who lost one of his legs to the disease. His cancer’s in remission; he’s come to the group to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) who’s lost one eye already and is facing upcoming surgery that will take the other one. Augustus faces life with a joie de vive that is the polar opposite of Hazel’s realism, but they both feel the attraction between them. Hazel gives him a copy of “An Imperial Affliction” to read and, seeing her love of the book, he offers to give her a special gift.
If you haven’t read the book, you might think you know where the movie is going after the above two paragraphs. Instead it keeps veering off into messy truth. John Green’s book became a bestseller because it’s not the sentimental Pablum we’ve seen before, such as in the disease-of-the-week movies on television.
Director Josh Boone had only made one feature before doing Fault, but he handles the cast and story beautifully. The novel was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who wrote the exceptional (500) Days of Summer and also adapted last year’s The Spectacular Now (which also starred Woodley). It was a help that Green was on the set for most of the shoot, ready to give input as needed.
This is a movie that sits on the shoulders of its two leads. The good news is that both Woodley and Elgort are up to the task, giving luminous performances. While they played siblings in Divergent earlier this year, there’s a definite chemistry between the two of them on film. Woodley demonstrated her strength three years ago by going toe-to-toe with George Clooney in The Descendants and holding her own. It’s a pleasure watching her embody Hazel. Elgort hasn’t as large a body of work as Woodley; his first movie was last year’s remake of Carrie, in which he was about the only improvement on the original film. He is an actor to watch in the years to come.
Laura Dern is excellent as Frannie, a mother who’s not only dealing with a teenager but also is aware she could lose her daughter at any time. Willem Dafoe and Lotte Verbeek have small but pivotal roles as author Peter Van Houten and his wife Lidewij. Special kudos to Nat Wolff; it’s delightful to see him get a shattering form of revenge (you might say) on a girl who dumps him because of his illness.
While this is a raw, emotionally wrenching movie, do not ignore it because the subject matter appears to be a “downer.” It mines a deep and rich vein of humor of the gray rather than black variety. It is also a powerful, life-affirming story that, while it falls into the Young Adult genre, speaks to truths that are universal and ageless. All generations will revel in the power of this movie. See it.