The kids aren’t all right
[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B00JLC5IRS][/pullquote] Ruthless efficiency and teen cancer drama are not terms that necessarily go together. That is unless you’re talking about the Shailene Woodley film The Fault in Our Stars. Based on the uber-popular novel by the former hospital chaplain John Green, the film directed with meticulous manipulation by Josh Boone aims for nothing more than to make its audience cry. It succeeds wholeheartedly.
Hazel (Woodley) is a cancer-stricken teen with a smart mouth and bags of attitude. She’s entirely aware of the predicament she’s in, but refuses to let it change her life. Enter Gus (Ansel Engort), the impossibly nice brainy high school jock. Romance is not far behind. The two bond over discussions of Hazel’s favourite book ‘An Imperial Affliction’ written by Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), which is about a young female cancer sufferer. Gus decides to contact the author and attempt to arrange a trip to Amsterdam so that Hazel can ask him questions that have dogged her for years, but the eventual trip does not work out as expected.
Using the surgical precision of a doctor’s blade, director Boone carefully lays out a series of scenes designed specifically to target his audiences eyes and force tears out of them. It’s got young, attractive teenagers. Young, attractive teenagers with cancer. They parents are lovely, but struggle with the reality of their kids affliction. They’re smart, almost impossibly so and full of life and aren’t looking for sympathy or attention. Only that’s exactly what their being used for by the director.
The casting of Divergent alumni Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort is a masterstroke. They’re both attractive, with their popularity on the rise and from the evidence her talented actors. Woodley especially manages to walk the line between pretentious and likable with the confidence and ability of someone much older. She has a unique quality of having the hidden intensity of a coiled viper. You feel that at any moment she could explode into a tirade of vicious abuse, but never does. This edgy characteristic perfectly underpins her tender and engaging performance as Hazel.
The twos central relationship is what drives the narrative and while their cancer is always lurking in the subtext, it quickly turns into a story of love. A little two quickly in fact. Unlike the mother-daughter relationship between Hazel and her mum (a great Laura Dern), which is riddled with guilt, upset and real emotions, the love story feels a little trite and undeserving of the emphasis put on it. They occasionally fall out, but not in any serious way and despite Hazel’s voiceover at the beginning that decries Hollywood films for having their characters hug to a Peter Gabriel song and work everything out, that’s almost exactly what happens here.
The small cameo from Dafoe as the acerbic author who threatens to ruin their trip is a breath of fresh air and stops the films inexorable slide into schmalty, overbearing nonsense, but then a quick trip to Anne Frank’s house (how inappropriate a metaphor that is) rights everything leading to the real low point of the film; their kiss, which is applauded by onlookers from different nations. I suppose the moral of the story is that by looking to history and seeing the people who really struggled, an author being mean to you probably isn’t the end of the world. Then again, maybe it’s that love conquers all. It’s unclear.
The title of the film is a paraphrasing of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and a quote specifically from Cassius to Brutus “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” which is a clever encompassing of what they have to offer. The more pertinent quote though comes from Van Houten, who viciously says after being told that they don’t want his pity “Of course you do, like all sick children your existence depends on it” and it is this quote that surmises teh films strength and weakness. These characters really don’t want the audiences pity, they are strong enough to get on with life without it. But the film-maker does, without it he is concerned that all he has left is a very mediocre tale of love and so strives at all costs to make you invested in them.