The Fault In Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, based on the eponymous novel by John Green, is a meticulously engineered machine designed to wreak havoc on our emotions. But because it is so engineered, so designed, the havoc is curbed. I was warned, before going into this film, that I might cry. Everyone cried. I didn’t cry though; I came close to crying. My tears were robbed of that final joy by the mechanical fate of Hazel Grace and Augustus.
I am inclined to bring another movie about star-crossed teen lovers into this review, just to sit alongside The Fault In Our Stars and give it that little nudge. That movie is The Spectacular Now, which coincidentally also starred Shailene Woodley (it is even more coincidental that her love interests in both Spectacular and Fault work with her again in this year’s Divergent). If you have not seen that movie, I strongly suggest you do. It is a superb examination of what teens go through when they reach that level. The level that runs electricity down their arms when they hold hands for the first time. When they don’t know what the heck is going on. And what The Spectacular Now did with aplomb was the naturalisation of its two main characters, Aimee and Sutter. The screenplay respected them as teenagers and allowed them to discover love and sex for themselves. They were given room to grow and were treated as human beings.
Hazel Grace (Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort), by comparison, are prisoners bound by shackles. They have no room to breathe in the screenplay, adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. They land in the plot and are deprived of decision-making. Their lives have been dictated, not by the cancer they both suffer from, but by the ineffectiveness of the writing. They check in at all the usual pitstops, say and hear all the usual romantic platitudes, and face the kinds of problems movie characters face. Remove the cancer, add slapstick, and you’ve got yourself a rom-com (some rom-coms don’t even remove the cancer).
All movies like this must have a meet-cute, where girl and boy stumble into each other’s universe and instantly fall in love with each other’s eyes. This usually happens at the office, while they’re fighting for the same cab, in an elevator, or anywhere that’s implausible. The Spectacular Now gave us a good one: Aimee’s lawn, and Sutter was passed out on it after a night of heavy drinking. The Fault In Our Stars gives us the lobby of a church, which is new, but then Hazel and Gus bump into each other in a manner just one rung above Boy Helps Girl Pick Up Dropped Purse Items. And the way Gus’ stare fails to leave the surface of Hazel’s face in the subsequent scene reflects more psychopathy than suavity.
Does Shailene Woodley know how gravely she has been conned in this movie? Her acting would say no. She is utterly effervescent here, fully convincing. If the story has flaws, she has none. She is armed with the protection of her beguiling smile, which prevents her from hitting a false note in her films. If she had been replaced, perhaps by Jennifer Lawrence, this movie wouldn’t have worked, and it’d be getting something less than three stars. She doesn’t seem privileged to be acting; she seems grateful. Elgort, on the other hand, while piercingly charming, maintains the same note throughout, and hides a personal secret hardly as decisive as Sutter’s in The Spectacular Now. They might make a good couple, Woodley and Elgort, but only so far as the limitations of the screenplay will take them.
I find it pointless to detail the plot of this movie. If you’ve seen a teen movie before, or a romance movie, or a cancer movie, you will be fully aware of where this one will take you. The Fault In Our Stars has one purpose: To make you cry. Of course, I am not trivialising the trauma and hardship faced by young cancer patients. That’d be silly of me. But don’t you think, if they are going to be portrayed on screen, that they’d deserve respect?
In The Spectacular Now, Sutter did something terrible to Aimee. Something neither should have ever recovered from. And yet the next time Aimee saw Sutter, she welcomed him with that warm Shailene Woodley smile. It was a smile of complete, unconditional forgiveness. It told me more about her character than the whole of The Fault In Our Stars does about Hazel Grace. And it made me cry.
Best Moment | When Hazel learns the terrible news.
Worst Moment | Hazel’s and Gus’ kiss in the house of Anne Frank. Hardly an appropriate setting. The following applause from the rest of the patrons was hardly appropriate either.