The Fault in Our Stars follows sixteen year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) who has fought thyroid cancer since she was thirteen. After the disease spreads to her lungs, Hazel entered an experimental study to help battle the cancer but, in spite of minor improvements to her overall comfort, she remains hooked to an oxygen tank, is easily tired, and, as a result, lives a hermitic life. Hazel fills her days with books, reality TV, and studying - until her mother (Laura Dern) pressures Hazel to join a support group for young cancer patients. Reluctant to cause her parents additional stress, Hazel agrees to attend the meetings.
The sessions are a chore – until she meets osteosarcoma survivor Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). Augustus is living cancer free, after doctors amputated his right leg, but attends the group in support of his best friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), who is days away from an operation that will leave him blind. Following the meeting, Hazel and Augustus strike up a fast and flirty friendship but as Augustus encourages Hazel to break out of her shell, challenging her to live before it is too late, she is reminded of her biggest fear: she’s a grenade, terminally ill, and when her day comes, she wants to protect everyone from the blast - even if it means holding someone she is growing to love at arm’s length.
The Fault in Our Stars film was adapted by writing partners Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer) from author John Green’s 2012 young adult novel of the same name – with Josh Boone (Stuck in Love) sitting in the director’s chair. Understandably, discerning moviegoers have become doubtful of young adult novel adaptations - following a string of hit or miss Hollywood cash grabs in the genre. That said, even though certain aspects of The Fault in Our Stars rely on teenage romance tropes, clever directing choices from Boone, challenging performances, and an uncompromising premise, elevate the final film far above its melodramatic contemporaries.
While the plot centers on a tale of star-crossed lovers, The Fault in Our Stars is in fact a surprisingly authentic and moving story of life in the shadow of death. Some viewers might be put-off by a story of teenage love but the narrative strives for much larger insight than simply following the ups and downs of a budding romance. From the opening moments, it’s clear The Fault in Our Stars seeks to be a spotlight for the truth (both the victories and the horrors) of those who have been touched, either directly or indirectly, by cancer (among other illnesses). While Hazel laments that her life isn’t normal, she provides the foundation for a more poignant tale of what it means to love and be loved.
Following critical and commercial success in The Descendants and Divergent, respectively, Shailene Woodley offers her sharpest performance to date. Beyond the challenge of depicting terminal illness with responsibility and authenticity, Woodley proves she can make teenage drama credible – in a way that should resonate with all viewers, regardless of age. It’s a brave performance, not because she’s once again playing a beloved book character; because the message of the movie is important - especially for women and men on the verge of adulthood. For those touched by tragedy, the struggles of Hazel (as well as her friends) will hit close to home but her actions and outlook offer a unique perspective on illness and death - one that might even provide comfort to audience members that have struggled (or will struggle) with loss.
Of course, that perspective grows out of Hazel’s encounters with Augustus and, after mostly understated roles in Carrie and Divergent, Ansel Elgort is a scene stealer in The Fault in Our Stars. The character offers a fun and exuberant juxtaposition to Hazel, often embodying the larger themes and messages of the film, without resorting to caricature or violating the movie’s hard-hitting representation of life as a sick teenager. In the young adult genre, where young men are often presented as standoffish, muscly hunks, it’s refreshing to see a male hero that expresses his love through thoughtful deeds - not fist fights and eye-rolling dialogue.
A strong cast of supporting players join Woodley and Elgort, including film veterans Laura Dern and Sam Trammell as Hazel’s parents, Mike Birbiglia playing the leader of Hazel’s support group, as well as Willem Dafoe in the role of reclusive author, Peter van Houten. While everyone in the cast turns in a quality performance, Nat Wolff (Admission) is particularly charming as Augustus and Hazel’s friend, Isaac, a character that weaves in and out of the main storyline but adds an extra layer of insight, and comedic relief, to The Fault in Our Stars.
Skeptics might scoff at its young adult-centric romance but The Fault in Our Stars has the potential to touch moviegoers both young and old – especially those that have battled sickness or cared for a dying loved one. Fans of the book as well as uninitiated moviegoers looking for a thought-provoking character piece will find plenty to enjoy and ponder in Boone’s latest film. The Fault in Our Stars succeeds a heartfelt drama, where a pair of teenage protagonists set the stage for an ageless (and uplifting) message about human life – highlighting both its frailty and beauty.
The Fault in Our Stars runs 125 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language. Now playing in theaters.
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