Shailene Woodley is so hot right now. Young adult fiction is so hot right now. Put them together and you should have a solid gold certified success, right? Well, not quite. Don’t get me wrong, Woodley is terrific as cancer-stricken teenager Hazel in Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars, the cinematic adaptation of John Green’s popular YA novel of the same name, it’s just that the movie doesn’t always live up to the quality of her performance. Woodley wowed all and sundry with her Golden Globe-nominated performance as George Clooney’s recalcitrant daughter in The Descendants and then backed up with a sparkling turn in The Spectacular Now before detouring into blockbuster territory with Divergent. With a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – the duo responsible for writing The Spectacular Now and the excellent (500) Days of Summer – The Fault in Our Stars is about real teenagers doing real things and therein lays its strength.
Of course, many real teenagers can be very annoying and teenage boys in particular are often cocky and self-assured to the point of being obnoxious. Gus is such a creature. Played by Ansel Elgort, who also featured in Divergent, Gus has good looks, charm and confidence in spades, all of which he uses to ingratiate himself with Hazel. The two meet in a cancer support group; he has lost a leg to the disease, while she has damaged lungs that requires her to be permanently attached to an oxygen tank. By no means a shrinking violet, Hazel is intelligent, witty and self-deprecating. She demonstrates maturity in balancing the seriousness of her situation with her desire to experience life to the fullest. Furthermore, she understands and appreciates the burden that her illness has placed on her parents, both financially and emotionally. Gus, on the other hand, is prone to make light of his circumstances and seems happy enough to grasp every advantage that comes his way as a result. Having survived a brush with osteosarcoma, perhaps Gus has every reason to embrace life to the full and can therefore be excused if he occasionally comes across as a bit too glib about his experience and what it has cost him (such as when he allows his friend Isaac to smash the basketball trophies that adorn his room). His so-called metaphor though, which consists of an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth almost all of the time – “you put the thing that does the killing right between your teeth, but you never give it the power to kill you!” – comes across as pretentious and is infuriatingly annoying.
The duo bond over vocabulary, Venn diagrams and literature, but it is their mutual love of a novel titled An Imperial Affliction that seals the deal. The story resonates with them through their shared experience with the central character, but they are frustrated by the ending and set out to contact the author in search of answers. Gus cashes in on the benevolence of an organisation akin to Australia’s Make-A-Wish Foundation to enable him and Hazel to meet Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of An Imperial Afflication, who is living in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam. However, Van Houten is a bitter man with no interest in indulging these two young people in their quest for answers. Dafoe is great as the rude, dismissive Van Outen and it is somewhat disappointing that, late in the piece, there is an attempt to redeem the character somewhat in the eyes of Hazel and the audience. Why do filmmakers (or authors for that matter) find it necessary to dilute the venom in such characters when they are almost always more interesting and believable when they are at their most despicable?
Woodley seems much more at home in smaller-scale productions such as this which rely more on acting than acrobatics. She is a naturalistic performer who articulates the emotional rollercoaster of Hazel’s experience to perfection. Whilst Elgort is serviceable as Gus, the problem lies in the character more so than the performance. Sure, Gus seems like the type of boy you would want your daughter to bring home, but he is just too good to be true. Laura Dern and True Blood’s Sam Trammell are fine as Hazel’s parents, while Nat Wolff provides comic relief as Isaac, a fellow cancer patient who is more upset at losing his girlfriend than he is about losing his eyesight. There is nothing showy about Boone’s direction of the drama and he lets the story, which no doubt will have people reaching for tissues, play out without it ever becoming manipulative or overly melodramatic.