Among all of the big summer blockbusters, it’s a surprise that one of the season’s most anticipated releases is a small, character-based flick centered around a pair of teenagers. As someone who possesses no familiarity with the source material, The Fault in Our Stars is an overly melodramatic weep-fest, but it features a very strong cast who keep it from veering into unintentional parody or corniness. It’s not for everyone, but the film’s target audience will not be disappointed.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is a solitary teenage girl living with thyroid cancer. It is a terminal condition that forces her to carry an oxygen tank in order to breathe. After attending a support group, she befriends an amputee with an outgoing personality named Gus (Ansel Elgort). Despite the immediate attraction, Hazel is tentative about pursuing a romantic relationship due to her grave condition. Gus refuses to give up and even becomes determined to help Hazel fulfill a dream of meeting her favorite author, Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). However, the trip to Amsterdam necessary to live out her fantasy poses health risks that threaten her life.
Obviously, the intent of this film is to bring tears to the eyes of the viewers. Based on the reactions of viewers around at the preview, it succeeds (the Kleenex corporation should have attempted to work out a promotion deal with the production). It’s obvious in its attempts, but the excellent work from the young stars do manage to elevate the material. Woodley is an engaging and likable lead and carries the movie with a performance that runs the gamut of highly emotional turns. The supporting roles are also well realized, including a brief but entertaining guest spot from comic Mike Birbiglia as a goofy, bible song crooning support group leader.
There are some tender and insightful moments between the two leads. However, there is also a troubling aspect about the adaptation that is hard to ignore. The film’s opening narration states that viewers aren’t going to see a Hollywood story about cancer. There will be no pretty stars or sweeping romantic gestures featuring characters blaring Peter Gabriel songs. Yet despite its claims, the film still delivers exactly what it promises not to. It’s full of witty, charming characters shot under soft lighting. Peter Gabriel may not echo from a Boombox, but characters do make grand declarations of love and the film does emulate many clichés of the teenage romance film. As a result, it is difficult for the experience to feel truly authentic.
And as the characters return from Amsterdam and events take a turn for the worse, the story drags considerably on its way to the inevitable climax. This is a period in the film where it becomes particularly calculating – the many pre-goodbyes and goodbyes themselves appear stretched out for the sole intent of eliciting tears. While it may work on a number of audience members, it feels manipulative and transparent in its mechanizations.
The Fault in Our Stars delivers a pulpy romantic fantasy – an ideal true love that is passionate as well as dramatically short and tragic. It doesn’t offer much to those outside its core demographic, but it does serve its fan base well and features stronger performances that one would expect given the material. For the next few weeks, moviegoers in general should prepare themselves… there are going to be a lot of theater lobbies filled with red-eyed, teary tweens.