With the mountain of films coming out nowadays geared towards young adult audiences, the selection can get a little stiff. While I may have written a sort-of defense of them some time ago — specifically that of Vampire Academy and the way critics react negatively towards YA works — I must admit, many are starting to riff off each other in rather boring ways. Every dystopia looks the same, every character is a pseudo-intellectual, every tale surrounded by tragedy, and every romance a manic pixie dream character that dozens of youths and adults alike will fall in love with. These aren’t necessarily things that automatically signal a bad film, but they certainly aren’t improving the genre for the youths that watch the films either. Thankfully, The Fault in Our Starsactually manages to be a step above some of the other works adapted from young adult fiction, channeling plenty of genuine emotion even though it too fulfills many requirements of the frustrating genre it’s a part of.
Adapted from the ever-popular John Green novel of the same name, The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of a young woman with cancer named Hazel (Shailene Woodley). In great part, Hazel’s narrative is a coming-of-age tale with the twist of sickness. While we know she may not have long to live, she is still taking her steps toward adulthood; her relationship with her parents factoring in greatly. But, as we’ve all learned, personal journeys are always overshadowed by the great teen romance that everyone dreams of, and that’s exactly what Hazel finds in Gus (Ansel Elgort), a now cancer-free patient who charms her in an instant.
There’s a lot about certain characters in young adult fiction that I can’t ever really wrap my head around. Augustus Waters is one of those characters. While Hazel comes off as a mostly stable and smart young woman, the young man she falls for is anything but. If I’m being completely honest, he’s your typical manic pixie dream boy. Augustus only exists to teach Hazel to embrace both life and death, but the way he comes off is more pushy creep who falls somewhere between the smart jock and the sensitive nerd. Many have told me that the dialogue he spews (sometimes romantic, often embarrassing) comes off as less pretentious in written form, but when read out loud, it’s like getting punched in the mouth.
One bit in the film, which many have critiqued from the trailer alone, is the perfect example of why I find Augustus’ character so frustrating as he tries to make something profound out of nothing at all. He sticks a cigarette in his mouth and when Hazel stares at him with shock, he says, “It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.” Later in the film, in a moment of what I can only describe as hopeful self-awareness at how stupid his dialogue can sometimes be, a flight attendant witnesses the cigarette in his mouth and proceeds to tell him, “That metaphor is prohibited on this flight.” It’s a glorious little moment that I’m thankful for because it, in some tiny amount, acknowledges how problematic his character can be. He’s not witty, he’s just annoying.
More frustrating than he are the scenes in which it becomes painfully clear that this is a narrative tailored for folks who don’t grasp (or, rather, don’t care) about how unrealistic this tale can be. By no means is it a bad story, as the direction it takes one is sometimes surprising and never exploitative, but it’s no masterpiece either, and often slips into baffling situations. I mean, come on, they kiss in Anne Frank’s house, and people applaud them for it. That’s ridiculous. There’s a whole lot of suspension of disbelief that has to come about to actually care about a narrative like this, as well as consciously choosing to ignore every teen cliché that shows up. If you can manage that, the film actually ends up being — pardon the awful, likely used, joke — sickly sweet.Now it may sound like I dislike this movie more than I like it, but for all the faults I’ve listed, The Fault in Our Stars actually gets a lot right.
For what it’s worth, Hazel Grace is actually a damn interesting character. As someone who can speak to not being a fan of Woodley’s work in the past, I’ve found her recent performances rather refreshing. Dreadful asThe Spectacular Now might have been, her work in it was easily the best thing about it, and she only gets better with TFIOS. I may not be sold on writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (even though I love 500 Days of Summer), but at least they’ve got a knack for writing Woodley roles. It’s not hard to see that there’s an actress who connects with the character when we look at the screen and forget it’s an act. Genuine emotion fills the air, and leads many to shed tears, when she interacts with those around her.
When the film isn’t indulging in teens being teens (in sometimes awful ways), it actually shows interest in depicting what it’s like for a young woman who knows her death is coming to confront her mortality and how it could affect those around her. One scene in particular that was impacting was a high-tension moment between Hazel and her parents (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) in which she confronts them about her impending death. They yell, they cry, and it’s all raw and powerful. Dern, who really outshines everyone in the supporting cast in this sole scene, tells her plainly, “Even when you die, I will still be your mom Hazel.” It’s this little exploration into the dynamic between parents losing their child and child losing their life that really gets to the heart of what Green does so well. In that moment, The Fault in Our Stars is at an absolute high, and it’s something I feel should have been explored to even greater effect.
Again, by no means is The Fault in Our Stars a bad film, but it’s not the grand romance that many claim it to be. In reality, Green’s tale is much more interesting when looked at simply as the tale of an interesting protagonist who is grappling with mortality, as well as all the things that come with being a young adult. Some will finish the film a puddle of tears while others find nothing memorable to take away. Regardless, it’s nice to know that at least one young adult novel got an adaptation that its fans are genuinely happy to call their own this year.
The Fault in Our Stars is currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD Combo.
Directed by Josh Boone; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber; starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, and Lotte Verbeek; 126 minutes.