Reviews

All Salvation is Temporary in 'The Fault in Our Stars'

The Fault in Our Stars provides a showcase for the protagonist's honest openness, her capacity to radiate and inspire empathy.


The Fault in Our Stars


Director: Josh Boone
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-06-06 (General release)
UK date: 2014-06-19 (General release)
Website
Trailer

The Fault in Our Stars opens with narration by Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a teenager living with terminal cancer. One way to tell that story is to "sugarcoat it," she says, "Nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song." Hazel goes on, "I like that version as much as the next girl does. It’s just not the truth."

Taken verbatim from John Green's source novel, a young-adult-and-beyond sensation, this voiceover will seem to fans the perfect opening, maybe the only opening. But a movie that positions itself as "the truth" takes a certain risk -- especially as it raises the specter of the beloved Say Anything, where a Peter Gabriel song does fix everything. In the pages of a novel, these words aren't part of sporadic voiceover narration, but the text itself. That opening salvo, then, is not a rough approximation of Hazel's point of view, but a clear expression of it. On screen, though, it's just a movie asserting that it's going to be more truthful than other movies.

To be fair, The Fault in Our Stars is probably more truthful than a lot of other movies about how we process death, about the experience of being young and in love, and about the stories we tell ourselves to reconcile those diametrically opposed feelings. Hewing closely to the novel's self-described sincerity, the movie gains further credibility from casting Woodley as Hazel.

Even when she's not actually starring (as in The Spectacular Now, another YA adaptation by Fault screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) or when she's working with middling material (as in Divergent, a more fantastical YA property), Woodley has an honest openness about her. She both radiates and inspires empathy.

The Fault in Our Stars provides a showcase for exactly that. Hazel's survival to age 16 has been both miraculous and not enough. She needs oxygen tubes to prop up her failing lungs, and while she may have some more years left, she's unlikely to live to a proper old age. Her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) know that at some point, they will be mourning her. They nonetheless insist that she try to keep connections with the outside world, and send her to a support group.

There she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), who has lost a leg to cancer, now in remission, attending the group to support his buddy Isaac (Nat Wolff), who has lost an eye to cancer and will soon lose another. Hazel and Gus catch each other's eyes, make small talk after the session, and quickly fall into the kind of thoughtful yet instinctive attraction that may only make sense for the young, or, in Green's words, "the way you fall asleep, slowly, then all at once."

Similarly, Hazel and particularly Gus speak with the kind of self-conscious, secret-language wittiness that might become precious in older characters' mouths and sometimes threatens to do the same here. Much of their dialogue comes straight from Green's book, where it complements Hazel's engaging first-person narration. Neustadter and Weber do a respectful and respectable job condensing scenes and pruning characters, as even a less plotty novel like The Fault in Our Stars requires, but they don't translate the novel to account for it being acted out rather than read, not trusting the actors' line deliveries or reaction shots.

The screenplay's caution is paralleled by director Josh Boone's choices. He approaches the visualization of his film with a strange timidity, as if fearful of fans' wrath. With Hazel's first-person accounts necessarily limited, much of the movie becomes an ongoing conversation between Hazel and Gus, which Boone over-cuts into awkward assemblies of shot styles. Over-the-shoulder shots, medium close-ups, and wider shots from arbitrary angles collide with little sense of rhythm, and scenes like Gus and Hazel's crucial first long talk become testaments to the amount of coverage Boone shot for these scenes rather than any specific ideas about how such scenes might look and what they might convey. Even when he manages to frame Hazel and Gus together (a surprisingly infrequent occurrence), the compositions are startlingly, almost distractingly, unimaginative.

When the camera does linger, it's usually on Woodley's face, and her expressiveness as she processes Hazel's conflicting emotions has heartbreaking eloquence. Elgort, for his part, captures both the sweetness and slight arrogance of Gus's charisma, and if the other book characters -- Isaac, Hazel's parents, a reclusive writer whose work Hazel shares with Gus -- aren't as distinctive in their on-screen incarnations, they at least serve to keep the movie focused on two people who matter most to each other. The actors and the basic material ensure that The Fault in Our Stars remains, in its movie form, an affecting love story.

What The Fault in Our Stars
 lacks is the offhand poetry of Green's book, even as the actors quote it repeatedly. The emotions are warm and earnest, sometimes raw and challenging, but the sterile digital cinematography creates a visual distance that suspends the story in traditional weepie territory. Woodley, Elgort, and the book they love deserve a movie as vibrant -- and as truthful -- as they are.

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image