More than its attempts to stir reflection on what it means to live and what it means to die, The Fault In Our Stars left me contemplating film criticism. Like most critics I suspect, I have a process. While I watch, observations collect in one mental pile, possible phrases in another, and eventually, the back of my mind has a checklist of successes and failures. It almost becomes like math: subtract what didn’t work from what did, and if the film’s still in good shape by the end I’ll stamp it with a good letter grade at the bottom of the review. But this is a curious circumstance, since, no matter how many flaws I could detect, and it quickly becomes apparent there is a bounty of them, there was little doubt I felt exactly what the film wanted me to at any given moment. Despite my best intentions to sit impervious to its not so invisible tricks, The Fault In Our Stars won. I choked up. More than once. And if I’m being really honest, the number is above the number of fingers I have on one hand. What director Josh Boone made wasn’t a film; it’s a finely tuned manipulative machine, primed with ruthless efficiency to elicit a powerful response of leaking emotion.
This is the latest of 2014’s young adult adaptations, and the second built as a starring vehicle for the beautiful star of The Secret Life of an American Teenager, Shailene Woodley. Adapted from a book of the same name from acclaimed and impressively internet friendly author John Green, The Fault In Our Stars falls in the well-explored genre of “sick-lit”, where characters confront real life tragedy instead of, as The Gaurdian puts it, “dragons, wizards, and vampire romances.” Woodley plays a sixteen year old girl named Hazel Grace Lancaster, who at an early age was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It spread to her lungs, and to breathe she’s forced her to carry around a portable oxygen tank like a ball and chain. Although she has warm support by her parents (played by True Blood star Sam Trammell and Laura Dern), her life is fairly contained. Solitary. At the request of her persistently caring mother, the kind we would be lucky have, she puts an end to her seclusion and joins a support group. It’s there the romance we were promised in the trailers sparks, where she bumps into a boy named Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) and the second their eyes meet they’re on a predictable path of love.
Our Stars tries to use its predicability to its advantage. The opening voice over by Shailene Woodley over tells us that there’s a typical pattern to young adult storytelling. Everything works out, the sun is still shining, and smiles are abound. But this story—her story— she tells us, breaks the mold. It will not be a happy tale, and more importantly, it won’t be safe. By having the film self-consciously declare that it’s different, that it’s in fact specifically designed to subvert expectations, you immediately have the very expectation of surprise. On one hand, this is a foolish narrative device for the same reason knowing a twist ahead of time can knock out the power of the shock, but on the other, it puts The Fault In Our Star’s official genre not as YA sick-lit, but as metaficiton. This is a text that comments on its own status as a work of art, telling a particular story in a particular genre and in a particular way. But to do that, metafiction actually has to be different, and nothing about The Fault In Our Stars is.
There’s an obvious pattern to melodramatic storytelling that’s easy to find in bad television, notably the soap opera, where good moments are only felt to punctuate the bad. Just like an animal test subject in a conditioning experiment where rewards reinforce behavior, Stars primed me to know when to expect to smile or when to cry depending on what I felt five minutes before. Audiences might not catch on while swept up in the Pitchfork-friendly music selection set to emotionally taut scenes, but inevitably they will begin to experience diminishing returns. Nothing in Stars feels organic, that is, other than the instant accessibility of its wonderful cast, but for the film to begin with the bold declarative statement that it’s a unique work while being the sharp opposite, one can’t help but feel cheated. For a film all about emotional honesty and truth, beginning the film with a promise it can’t keep is an undermining offense I can’t forgive, especially as the finished product is ultimately a work of escapism. I won’t say who, how, or what, but its tear-jerker tragic status is deserved, but by preaching a sermon on the power of love, it’s no less a case of wish-fulfillment than if the story ended without any sense of loss. “There’s light in the dark” ends up being the story’s main take-away, a theme that is annoyingly redundant.
The Fault In Our Stars’ greatest asset is its ability to create interesting characters, almost all of whom win you over. They might be cartoons, especially in their unabashed graciousness, but they’re likable cartoons. For instance, passing jokes between Hazel and her parents tell us the sixteen year old main character hasn’t experienced much of a life. She doesn’t have friends and isn’t interested in making any, and she scoffs at doctors who dance around saying “death.” Hazel’s characterization is a rich one, full of many traits and attributes worthwhile for young girls to aspire to adopt. She’s self aware and self deprecating, but only to the point of exercising a droll humility. Woodley brings her to life with extraordinary sensitivity and emotional grace, giving the impression of every emotion being deeply felt without indulging strained facial expressions, over-crying, or scrunched eyebrows. She’s the real deal, and if the Hollywood powers at be are paying attention, they’ll stop trying to make her Jennifer Lawrence-lite and realize she’s a powerful presence entirely of her own, wholly unique, merit.
If the screenplay (and possibly the book-I haven’t read it) does anything differently, it’s that it doesn’t contrive conflict. The characters are interesting enough to carry the film without making Augustus and Hazel petty or obviously adolescent, and they’re easy to support and believe in. Elgort is a wonderful find, and although he’s clunky and doesn’t have the charisma or wit of Woodley, you root for him. Laura Dern’s spectacularly caring turn as Hazel’s mother gives key moments a big emotional boost, particularly in early-film flashbacks when a young Hazel was nearing death. Dern shows the panic of a mom in crisis with unusual plausibility, and seeing her terrified maternal face was enough for tears to form. An odd construction of the script is that to flesh out a handful of key characters, the rest are compressed into passing phantoms. This includes Augustus’ parents, who are on screen for all of a minute and a half, along with Hazel’s father. He pops in and out of the frame at random, and the characters seem to forget about him as much as the script. The whole film lacks a professional polish, and Boone gives The Fault In Our Stars the aesthetic look of a Hallmark movie. But, for a film as damagingly flawed as this, I can’t deny the at times potent emotion it had conjured. The filmmaking won’t win you over, but the cast will.