Kids. Cancer. Doomed love. Wisdom beyond their tender years. Courage in the face of adversity. Vulnerability that comes with that sudden slap in the face known as mortality. These are the melodramatic elements that go into the fearless, flawed adaptation of John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars. Based on the author’s experiences as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, we are supposed to be witnessing one of those timeless tales where optimism and hope trump death and disease, where allegorical stances substitute for any real human connection. Instead of focusing on the daily struggles of love birds Hazel Grace Lancaster (a delightful Shailene Woodley) and Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort), we get snarky remarks, a trip to Amsterdam, and one of the most inappropriate kisses in the history of such sob stories.
With a strong spirit and incredibly weak lungs, Hazel Grace is facing death head on. Depressed, she is convinced by her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) to go to a local church support group. With her oxygen tank as a constant companion, she meets up with other teens going through equally dire health issues. One day, she runs into Gus and the sparks fly. He lost a leg to cancer a few years back, but he’s been disease-free otherwise. She’s reluctant to let anyone in. He’s as outgoing and fun loving as they get. She introduces him to a book by an author named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). He immediately gets the idea of visiting the expatriate in Amsterdam to get him to explain the novel’s ambiguous ending. Along the way, they fall in love. Then bad news hits, putting a personal damper on their epic romance.
Every generation needs their Love Story, and The Fault in Our Stars is the disease of the week weeper for a new millennium. It’s witty and self-aware, often to its detriment. It’s also hollow and emotionless, eliciting sobs out of obvious narrative contrivance (i.e. somebody dies) vs. a complicated character struggle. Indeed, all the players in this terminal tearjerker are relatively secure in their disease. They own their pain but never allow us to see it. Instead, we end up with an ambling adolescent romance where true love (or its puppy-fied equivalent) is countermanded by the Big C, meaning that everything is amplified a hundredfold only to really get the tissues flying. No matter how quickly our couple falls for each other, we know it won’t last. No matter the amount of hope expressed, there’s really none to be had.
It’s all so wooden and mechanical, and yet it’s also wonderfully acted and often deeply felt. Woodley and Dern are the real winners here, the younger star matching the aging veteran moment for well-scripted moment. They have a terrific mother/daughter bond which gets us past the legitimate lack of drama in their lives. As for Elgort, well, he’s rather innocuous. He doesn’t hold the sway of other young adult love interests, meaning his journey is not one we really get involved with. He’s handsome and empathetic, the perfect combination for today’s Instagram-rapt audience.
The bigger problem here is how the disease is treated overall. Cancer becomes a pragmatic excuse for everything, even when our couple decides to make out in the very attic where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis (that is not a joke). There’s a hidden understanding on everyone’s part to simply accept it and say something like, “It’s okay. Let them be. They’re sick.”
The only problem is, they aren’t. The film never once shows us a sequence of raw medical misery. That’s all left for conversations in waiting rooms and voice-over confirmations. At the very beginning of the film, Hazel Grace eschews fantasy to tell us this is the “truth” about living with cancer. The Fault in Our Star, however, is just as unapologetically false as the various genre tropes it trots out. It’s well made, but empty inside.