Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Director: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Bibiglia
Running Time: 126 min.

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's an affliction that exists in movies often mockingly referred to as "Beautiful Girl Doomed with Cancer" Syndrome. We've seen it enough over the years that it's almost become a running gag. In The Fault in Our Stars, adapted from John Green's bestselling YA novel, Shailene Woodley gives what just might be the best "Beautiful Girl Doomed With Cancer" performance of all-time. And that's not meant sarcastically or as some kind of backhanded compliment. She's wonderful precisely because she so naturally makes us feels like we're never watching one of those. And yet it delivers exactly what the trailers and commercials promised and its book's tween girl fanbase were clamoring for. It's definitely a teen romance through and through. But what's shocking is how this isn't a deal-breaker or even necessarily bad news since it proudly owns that designation while reaching for something more. The movie honestly wears its heart on its sleeve, completely committing to what it wants to do without any fear of coming off sappy or ridiculous.

According to doctors, 16 year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is on borrowed time. She has been for a while now, suffering from Stage 4 thyroid cancer that's spread to her lungs. While an experimental drug has temporarily improved her quality of life, the simplest of daily activities are difficult. But with a sarcastic sense of humor and a realistic outlook on her condition, she sees herself as anything but a victim. When her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) suggests she attends a cancer patient's support group at a local church to make friends, she meets the charismatic Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) a former high school jock whose ongoing battle with osteosarcoma resulted in the loss of his leg.

The two start spending a lot of time together bonding over their favorite books, but despite Augustus' persistence and charms, it's a relationship she insists on keeping platonic, describing herself as a "grenade" ready to go off and destroy anyone who gets too close. But that stance is seriously tested when he provides her with the opportunity to fly to Amsterdam to meet reclusive author Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), who wrote her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, which centers around a young girl battling cancer. Whether she'll be well enough to even survive the trip and what eventually happens during it defines the relationship between Hazel and Augustus, which is rapidly evolving in ways neither expected.

For much of its first half the film follows a trajectory that would probably be familiar to not just anyone who read the book, but those who have seen any movie about a young person in love battling a terminal illness. But the difference here is that Hazel is unusually well-written and intelligent for a character of this type. She talks openly, humorously and sometimes even sarcastically about how horrible her condition is while maintaining a positive enough outlook that falls on the side of realistic rather than saintly. That's all Woodley's performance. Augustus isn't quite as deeply drawn and could easily be considered a "Manic Pixie Dream Boy," showing up seemingly out of nowhere to sweep Hazel off her feet by saying all the impossibly right things. But Elgort's so likable and the two actors share such incredible chemistry it's difficult for even that to be bothersome.

Their initial courtship is the film's strongest claim to "chick flick" territory with scenes that come off as somewhat cutesy in the moment until the full story later comes into view and they feel completely earned. The turning point is the Amsterdam trip and even some of the events leading up to that regarding Hazel's health. A lesser film would have just glided over the dangers and pitfalls of flying a Stage 4 terminal cancer patient on oxygen overseas. But the screenplay actually spends some time with her parents and doctors examining all the drawbacks, before coming to a reasonable resolution. We know the trip is technically a bad idea and likely impossible, but at least the characters are smart enough to understand that also.

Revealing anything about the jaw-dropping encounter Hazel and Augustus eventually have with her literary hero is giving away too much, but when a successful author's a recluse there's usually a reason why. And most of the time it's bad. Paraphrasing Hazel, Willem Dafoe ends up being the real "grenade" of the story, shifting things in an entirely different direction. The whole van Houten sequence is a legitimate shocker in how uncomfortable and angry it makes the viewer. I was literally squirming in my seat. If that's not enough, it's followed by another surprise that proves to be just as emotionally devastating, but equally well handled. In a rarity, the over two hour run time adds a bit of weight and heft to what could have seemed like a less substantial effort without the breathing room, even if it probably has one more ending than it should.

Woodley's simply a revelation in the role and try as the script might to sometimes take her into syrupy territory, she's having none of it, bringing a realistic vulnerability and toughness to Hazel that sidesteps as many cancer patient movie cliches as it can. With each passing scene she only pulls us in further, likely winning over any cynics who thought she was possibly too old for the role or didn't have the moxy to pull it off. She deserves much more than an MTV Award. Elgort is almost equally strong and in a way he had to overcome more in being thrust into the more obviously "written" part. He not only overcomes it, but creates doubt that Woodley couldn't have done this opposite just anyone else, effectively portraying this young man who isn't as sure of himself as he'd have everyone believe. An actor playing an actor, the only thing we know for sure is that his feelings for Hazel are very real.

It's easy to complain Laura Dern is being relegated to the mother role, but at least it's written and performed in such a way that it never feels like are noses are being rubbed in it. Walking the line between wanting Hazel to have a life and friends but aware of the precautions that need to be taken with her daughter's health, Dern makes her almost impossibly cool and normal without ignoring the emotional pain of the situation. Sam Trammell gets less time in as her dad, Michael, but he's portrayed and performed just as believably. Nat Wolff kind of feels hung out to dry as Augustus' blind best friend, more there as a wisecracking sidekick to provide comic relief amidst the gloom and doom. And it's already established that Dafoe steals the movie in his few, but monumentally pivotal scenes, bringing his trademark creepiness to the last movie you'd expect to find it in.

Indistinctly but efficiently adapted to the screen by relative newcomer Josh Boone, he may have just cashed in his directorial lottery ticket by simply not screwing this up. It's a victory that shouldn't be undersold since the number of ways a disease melodrama can go wrong are endless. Written by the duo of Scott Neustader and Michael H.Weber, this effort comes in a distant third behind their work in (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, but there's little shame in that considering those were two of the best scripts written about young love while this is somewhat handcuffed by the trappings of a super-popular YA adaptation. But remarkably, that same observational quality about relationships from those films is still very present.     
The Fault in Our Stars doesn't exactly go where you'd expect, or at least in the way you'd suspect it to. But it also kind of does. And still, nothing about it really seems juvenile or cloying, even if by every right it should. With a somewhat bizarre structure and a wordless scene near the end that will have you choking back tears, it still has its faults, but even a few of those are converted to strengths thanks to some smart choices and two performers that make everything feel real. They're worth every penny the studio paid them, as it's impossible imagining a similarly successful result with different actors in the roles.

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