Who would have guessed that a romance about teens with cancer, with no special effects, horror or sci-fi elements, based on a novel of high literary quality, managed to beat out the new Tom Cruise action picture for a $48 million opening weekend? Is it true? Are kids reading again?
The Fault in Our Stars features Shailene Woodley as Hazel, a 17-year-old cancer survivor who should have died, but has stayed alive indefinitely thanks to a miracle drug and the oxygen tank she wheels around behind her to supplement what she charmingly calls her "shitty lungs." Her parents are Frannie and Michael, played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell with just the right amount of levity and concern.
Every day Hazel stays alive is a gift or whatever, but who wouldn't want something more? Enter Augustus, or "Gus," played by Ansel Elgort.
Their meet-cute is a microcosm of everything about this film that could be hokey and dreary, but somehow isn't. They crash in the hallway and look into each other's eyes. We've all seen the poster, we know what's in store for them, but even at 32 years old and cynical as all hell about the possibilities of true love, I believed in the very realness of their crush.
The Fault in Our Stars is based on a novel by John Green, brother of our hometown hero Hank Green and the other half of YouTube's Vlogbrothers, among his many accolades. The film's directed by Josh Boone and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, although John Green was on set as an advisor and it shows; this is maybe the most faithful adaptation of a novel I've ever seen. If you enjoyed the book, then you will accept the film wholeheartedly.
For me, Hazel's the very best thing about John Green's novel. She's kind, hilarious and warm. Woodley plays her with such an effortless grace, and maybe it's just lucky for me, but her slightly husky voice is just how I imagined it in my head. Ansel Elgort as Gus didn't look the way I wanted him to, and it took some getting used to. He's the kind of handsome that gets scouted by model agencies from shopping malls, with brooding eyes and thick lips. He's too much the teenage fantasy; he belongs taped up in lockers. I wanted him to be more real, but even Elgort eventually won me over. He's got cancer too, of course, and when he tells Hazel he's an 18-year-old virgin on account of his prosthetic leg, he does it with a genuine aw shucks teenage body language, and I almost, nearly believe him.
The two of them start hanging out after their cancer support group (led adorably by comedian Mike Birbiglia) which thankfully they are of sound enough mind to make fun of. They talk a little like characters from "Dawson's Creek," that is, just a little too eloquently, but then, teenagers who've been homeschooled due to chronic illness probably have more time to read. They share an obsession with a made-up novel, A Serious Affliction, written by an eccentric American author (Willem Dafoe) living in Amsterdam. The book ends with its cancer-afflicted heroine dying off in mid-sentence, which is provocative but unsatisfying. The author disapproves of the world and refuses to answer fan letters, until one day he does, and the couple decide to use Gus's "Make a Wish" to visit the reclusive author in Amsterdam and see if they can't get some answers.
Other things happen in the plot, of course: Childhood dreams are abandoned and people get sick, but we came to see the tender romance blossom between the two, and so it is. The Fault in Our Stars belongs to smart people who know that kindness is its own reward, and the few mean people among them are dealt with, handily.
Something bad happens at the end, and keeps happening. Your heartstrings get pulled until you think they're spent, and then they're pulled on some more. The film critic in me has to warn you that the closing act drags on a bit much. Then again, there's something undeniably cathartic about tragedy. I heard teenage girls weeping all around me in the theater in stereo, and it was weirdly nice. It felt like we were all in it together.
The Fault in Our Stars continues at Carmike 12.