The Fault in Our Stars
Review by Daniel Rester
“[The Fault in Our Stars] is one of those films that if you don’t cry when watching it, I truly feel you have no soul.” Those are the words of fellow WeLiveFilm critic Scott Menzel. And apparently I have no soul. That’s right, I didn’t shed one tear during Stars. Damn me. But that isn’t to say the film didn’t leave its mark, at least for the most part that is.
Stars is based on the novel of the same name by John Green. It’s brought to the screen by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and director Josh Boone. The story deals with Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort), two teens with cancer who fall in love. She comes with an oxygen tank, him with a prosthetic leg. Both come with the chance of dying at any moment.
Also at risk of cancer is Isaac (Nat Wolff), Gus’ best friend and someone who is dealing with a relationship of his own. Then we have Hazel’s naturally worried parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), a Jesus-loving cancer survivor named Patrick (Mike Birbiglia), and an author who Hazel very much admires (Willem Dafoe) rounding out the supporting characters. Add in various moments of falling in love and dealing with the possibilities of death and you have your movie.
Such material as this can sit on a fine line between sappy melodrama and great romance. Luckily, most of Stars sits on that latter side, though often just by a smidgen. Credit goes to the writing and the two stars for this.
Green’s writing, and Neustadter and Weber’s treatment of it, mostly comes off as smart and sincere. Hazel and Gus feel like real teens, well-rounded in character and tied together in believable situations. She believes in facing reality in nearly all situations, while he is more of a dreamer and has hopes of being remembered by many. These differences in character, and also the similarities they share, make Hazel and Gus’ relationship a bit more interesting than the typical boy-meets-girl formula. The dialogue often hits with wit at certain points and pathos at others; many of the conversations between these two feel very genuine.
Woodley is outstanding as Hazel. She has the power to make you laugh and then break your heart within a few beats. Her performance is never really showy, and she runs a range of emotions in believable ways. Elgort is terrific as well. His expressions are blank at times, and his navigation of the dialogue is less authentic in feeling than Woodley’s, but the actor is just extremely likable as this character. He manages to make Gus straightforward in thought and bright in character.
The supporting cast here is also strong. Dern and Trammell are wonderful in a few moments with Woodley, though some of the parent-daughter situations chosen in the story seem a bit obvious. Dafoe is excellent as usual. That said, his scenes as the author Van Houten almost feel a little out of place at times. Wolff comes off best in the supporting department, delivering a lot of the film’s comic relief.
While the writing and performance side of things hit very well, it’s the filmmaking and form side of things in Stars that I have some issues with. Boone’s handling of the film is hit-and-miss for me. At times the director does an amazing job at crafting the situations to be as authentic as possible. But at other moments I found myself saying “Really?”
While the writing sometimes makes the mistake of mocking “cancer movie clichés” and then embracing similar clichés just scenes later, Boone’s handling of such cliché moments makes things worse. Quite a few times I found myself hoping for moments where Boone would let things subtly sink in through his actors’ use of pauses and looks. While I did find some scenes like that, the audience is more often treated to scenes that are smothered with music that is trying to force you to tears. I don’t mind it when my heartstrings get played, but I would rather it happen more through dramatic acting than pushy tunes. Then we also get such things as heavy-handed narration, slow-motion weeping, close-ups of hands gripping each other in emotional situations, and uses of soft focus and bright lighting to underline romantic situations. Like I said before, a fine line with this stuff.
Stars is made with sincerity and is bound to make many shed some tears. But too often I found myself distracted by some of the filmmaking choices (especially in the handling of a key scene involving Anne Frank’s house) in trying to connect with the film on a whole. The film also feels overlong by about twenty minutes. However, Woodley, Elgort, and many of the individual scenes still make it worth seeing.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality, and brief strong language).
Runtime: 2 hours and 5 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: June 6th, 2014.