Going to see Edge of Tomorrow, I saw a tide of teenage girls pouring out of The Night Before Our Stars (a special opening-night screening with plenty of bonus material featuring the stars and John Green, who wrote the source novel). I was glad I opted not to see the movie at the time (to put it mildly, I would have seemed out of place), but given the film’s high profile and strong reviews, I decided to give it a chance. And I’m glad I did. Despite its objective flaws, there’s enough emotional punch here that even I was pretty thoroughly moved by the end.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a teenager who has fought thyroid cancer for some years, which has metastasized to her lungs, leaving her dependent on supplemental oxygen. Because of her illness, she has been socially isolated, and her mother urges her to join a support group led by the religiously devout Patrick (Mike Berbigilia). Initially bored by the group, she catches the eye of attendee Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), who had been a high school basketball player until cancer of the knee forced him to receive a partial amputation. He invites her to his home, where they quickly bond; she agrees to read his favorite novel if he will read hers, An Imperial Affliction, told from the perspective of a cancer patient. Hazel and Augustus (or “Gus” as he prefers) both love the book, but are frustrated by its abrupt ending at the moment of the narrator’s death.
Hazel has repeatedly written to the novel’s author, Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), asking him what happens after the book ends, but to no avail. Gus is able to contact van Houten’s agent and Hazel is ultimately contacted by van Houten, who tells her he cannot share any details remotely, but if she should happen to be in Amsterdam (where he lives), she should visit him. Hazel and Gus become closer and closer, though she is reluctant to make a romantic commitment. Gus is able to use a wish-fulfillment group to arrange a trip for him and Hazel to Amsterdam, and despite a health scare on her part, the trip goes forward and Hazel and Gus are treated to a romantic dinner at van Houten’s expense.
The following day they meet him and discover everything was arranged by his agent, Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek); van Houten himself is a drunken recluse who gives evasive replies to Hazel’s questions and, when she demands a straight answer, goes on a rant about her cancer and society’s irrational indulgence of her and other cancer-stricken youths. She and Gus leave in disgust, and an apologetic Lidewij takes them on a tour of the Anne Frank House; despite the physical challenge, she is able to climb to the Achterhuis, where she and Gus share a kiss to the applause of onlookers. That night, they make love, but the next day Gus reveals that his cancer has returned, and metastasized throughout his body. On returning to America, he begins treatment, but Hazel, assuming that she will die before him, tries to push him away so as not to break his heart.
Young love cannot be denied, however, and they become closer than ever as Gus deteriorates, even to the point where his normally cheerful demeanor gives way to fear and despair. Knowing that the end is near, he asks that Hazel and his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff)–another cancer patient who has lost his eyes–read him their eulogies for him. Both display the flippant wit he has relished throughout. A few days later, he dies, and at the funeral, Hazel does not deliver her planned eulogy, but instead gives one for the benefit of his family, realizing this is the best way. van Houten appears at the funeral, revealing that Gus had kept in touch with him, and tries to explain himself to Hazel, revealing that his novel was based on his own daughter, who had died of cancer as a child. Hazel wants nothing to do with him, but later learns that the letter van Houten was trying to share was actually Gus’ eulogy for her. She reads it and looks contentedly at the stars.
If it were no more than its sentimental story, The Fault in Our Stars would hardly be worth mentioning. If it were no more than its acting, it would be a great film (or at least a very, very good one). As it is, it’s a good one. A very good one in the watching, even. And most of that is because of Woodley and Elgort.
Woodley made a great impression in 2011 as the rebellious older daughter in The Descendants (which she probably should’ve had an Oscar nomination for), and is in no less than three major films this year (the others being Divergent and White Bird in a Blizzard). And she’s not just lucky; as her work here proves, she’s immensely talented, and if anything, an awareness of the film’s shortcomings makes her performance that much more impressive. A digression:
The script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is a mixed bag, to be sure. I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know what might have worked on the page that was unwisely kept on the screen, but there are some decidedly contrived moments and ideas on hand:
- The clapping scene (in the Anne Frank House, no less): at best, it’s gratuitous, and at worst, borderline tastless;
- Gus’ habit of keeping an unlit cigarette between his lips, as a “metaphor” (“I put the killing instrument in my mouth, but do not give it the means to kill me”): to a 15-year-old that might seem deep, but Gus is supposed to be 18, and…I don’t buy it;
- Hazel and Gus’ “acerbic wit” is touted in the promotional materials, but a lot of the attempts at overt wit are kind of feeble;
- Hazel and Gus deliberately establish “okay” as “their word” (kind of like “ditto” in Ghost)…yeah, no;
- The film begins with Hazel saying that most cinematic depictions of cancer are sugarcoated and this film is “the truth”, which is a really brash claim that the film doesn’t really live up to.
Outside of this, however, Hazel and Gus are well-drawn characters, their flippancy understandable as a defense mechanism against their own difficult and uncertain lives. And, it must be said, their love story is a genuinely sweet one. They don’t fall in love at first sight (well, Gus might), but gradually build a bond which passes over into full-on romance without occasioning me to call bullshit; I believed in their devotion to each other.
That may be due in part to my willingness to indulge good schmaltz (see Winter’s Tale for an example of bad schmaltz). And when the characters are this likable, and when their situation is this sympathetic, I’m willing to meet the film halfway. In one potentially corny moment, Hazel, Gus, and Isaac go to the home of Isaac’s ex (who left him, claiming she couldn’t handle his total blindness) and pelt it with eggs; when the girl’s mother appears, Gus exclaims “Between the three of us we have five legs, four eyes, and two and a half working pairs of lungs, but we also have a dozen¹ eggs, so if I were you, I’d go back inside.” It could’ve easily fallen flat, but here it’s a touching, funny declaration of unity.
Back to Woodley. While Hazel has more than her share of hamfisted dialogue, Woodley is totally sincere at every point in the film, making you feel all of Hazel’s frustration, confusion, and ultimate, bittersweet contentment. She never plays up a moment for more than it’s worth, never sounds like she’s delivering dialogue, and wears Hazel’s oxygen mask with complete assurance. It’s a lovely performance, and between this and White Bird I hope she gets some awards attention this year.
Elgort (who reminds me of a young Jeff Bridges) is very nearly as good. As potentially tiresome as Gus is, Elgort is incredibly likable throughout, unaffected in performance (a definite accomplishment when playing such an affected character), possessing excellent chemistry with Woodley (they were in Divergent together, which no doubt helped), and shifting gears from the bright, upbeat Gus of the first two acts to the frightened, morbid fellow of the third.
Woodley and he are really what lift this film from the Y.A. doldrums into the realm of legitimacy (I wouldn’t totally rule this out as an Oscar contender). It’s worth noting that their love scene is a real rarity for modern Y.A. cinema: a sex scene which is neither sensationalized nor bowdlerized to the point of laughability. It’s a healthy expression of young love, and it’s cheering to see in this day and age.
The supporting cast is generally quite strong as well. Wolff (who reminds me a bit of Christopher Mintz-Plasse) essentially plays the comic relief character, but he’s legitimately funny, so he’s good. Laura Dern plays Hazel’s mother, and she’s quite strong, putting up a brave, slightly bemused front, embracing Gus as a part of the family and accepting, even supporting Hazel’s desire for more of a life. It’s a tender, low-key performance that is perhaps best exemplified by the scene where Hazel points out that, one day, she and Hazel’s father (Sam Trammell) will no longer be her parents; she responds that, no matter what happens, she will always be Hazel’s mother, and that this will be her greatest accomplishment. Dern is really quite good, and I hope to see more of her going forward. (Trammell has comparatively little to do, but he’s fine as well.)
Kudos to the film for giving Willem Dafoe a chance to play some undiluted bastardy. He sinks his teeth into van Houten’s vicious misanthropy, but doesn’t try to ham it up; he steals the scene in the best way possible, and even plays his attempted-redemption moment with sincerity. Dafoe can usually be counted on to give it his all (I wish he’d had more to do in Nymphomaniac), and he doesn’t disappoint.
There’s not much to say about Josh Boone’s direction or the film’s technical aspects. They’re adequate, and not lacking in any notable way. I can’t help but wonder what Douglas Sirk would’ve done with this material (I need to rewatch/review Imitation of Life), but obviously that’s pure fantasy.
One thing which I must mention, though, is the soundtrack. The awful, awful soundtrack. Not the score (which is unnoteworthy), but the horrendous, faux-indie, manipulative, intrusive, sugar-slop soundtrack. Garbagey songs from groups I’ve never heard of (not that that matters, per se, but I don’t want to hear of these bands), playing up every moment (or so it seems), no doubt dating the film pretty badly, and just in general stinking up the place. To the film’s credit, I don’t really remember the songs, just the performances and writing, but in the viewing they were just painful to endure. When trying to rate the film, I wavered between *** and ***½, and the soundtrack was a pretty big factor in my opting for the lower rating.
That said, it misses the higher rating by a hair. There’s a lot of good stuff to be found here, but atop it all sit Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, who give us a couple worth rooting for. For that alone, I recommend it–though a high tolerance for sentimentality is required.
¹The source I cited quotes the book and says “two dozen eggs”, but I’m pretty sure he says “a dozen” in the film.