This review originally appeared in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad
Shailene Woodley is everywhere. Which... well, I hope you like looking at her face. Not content to be the face of the post-Hunger Games YA dystopia fever (Divergent), she's also continuing that other everygirl thread in her career. She reads more like a girl next door, someone you know, than a STAR!; pretty but not intimidatingly gorgeous, relatable not charismatically mysterious. She's specalized in earnest portrayals of ordinary teens getting their first taste of the tough stuff in life: death and desertion (The Descendants), disease and disappointment (The Spectacular Now). Hazel Grace Lancaster, her character in The Fault in Our Stars, doubles down and has to deal with all of it.
Hazel is a 16 year old with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She needs an oxygen tank to breathe, which she drags behind her like a depressing carry-on she wishes she could check. Though she's outlived the initial prognosis she's acutely aware that she'll never grow old. Inbetween flashes of well earned self-pity and sarcasm, she worries about her parents (the well cast Sam Trammell and Laura Dern, who is reliably excellent) and how they'll survive her death. She attends a cancer support group for teenagers, at her mother's prodding. Mrs Lancaster hopes it will lift Hazel's depression and help her make friends.
The support group has your usual movie mix of comic relief characters (the ringleader is a born again buffoon), and tear-jerking extras who have to sell their pain quickly for ambience, before getting out of the way - “Step aside. Plot coming through!”. We quickly focus on two guys Hazel's age: Isaac (Nat Wolff) who is going blind and his best friend Gus (Ansel Elgort) who lost his leg to the disease but is now cancer free. Gus always has a cigarette dangling from his lips which he never lights, his metaphor for acknowledging death’s presence but refusing to give it power or some such teenage profundity. (I lost my notes.)
Though Fault is not a romantic comedy, and the occasional laughs are of the gallows variety, Gus is basically the gender inverted version of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl: adorable, impossible to believe as an actual human as opposed to a "character", but deliciously ALIVE and therefore able to jolt our unhappy protagonist awake for adventure… #YOLO. Gus comes on strong. Very very strong, really, considering Ansel's charm offensive. He's so cocky, self-consciously "cool" and quick to make the moves on Hazel that a tossed-off confession later in the movie that he's a virgin rings suspicious when it's not meant to. I would say the actor is completely overdoing it but this overplaying does have a few benefits in the last act when things get dark. It wasn't until the movie ended that I realized he'd played Shailene's reserved brother in Divergent so he's got range at least. (When we return to that franchise with Insurgent next year will it suddenly be burdened with incestuous vibes?)
Once Gus & Hazel are making eyes and texts at each other and trading favorite novels, the plot gets very complicated and even Transatlantic, eventually taking us to Amsterdam and the Anne Frank house. Hazel’s breathing problems make this tourist stop a Herculean effort (no elevators) and at the top of the stairs in that famous room where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis, the teenage lovers make out and (gasp) are applauded for it by the other tourists in what has to be the single biggest eye-rolling movie moment of the year.
But all the while the threat of sudden death from cancer looms, which is a bummer. But also: the point.
Hazel warns us in voiceover that we have a choice about how to tell sad stories and she’s notgoing to sugar-coat this one. To some extent she keeps that promise (two funeral related sequences late in the movie and a very frank conversation with her parents are beautifully judged) but the film has enough of the romanticism and broad only-in-a-movie moments (like the Anne Frank house) to hedge its bets. It thinks it's too cool to be maudlin but it's also a little bit maudlin.
Judging the quality of a cancer movie on whether or not it makes you cry and how much is silly.
- The Blurb Whore Times
It's a bit like asking if baby kittens are cute and if so which one is cutest? You will have a good cry, the movie delivers there, and sometimes that’s a good reason to go to the movies. If you've lost anyone to cancer when you were both young (full disclosure: I did), fair warning: you will have to towel off from the sheer deluge. But no amount of feels should excuse impromptu makeouts in the Anne Frank house.
Oscar Chances: Too YA for them. [On second thought looking at box office numbers... perhaps Shailene can get some heat for her performance, given the career ascendance and the popular hit factor. Golden Globe nomination?]