The Fault in Our Stars is a meticulously photographed and acted film containing some of the best acting you’ll likely see all year. It’s also a Young Adult tearjerker, and if that genre is not one of the viewer’s favorites, that fact can compromise one’s enjoyment. The film—believe it or not—reminds one a bit of the superhero and X-Men films of late. The genre may not be your favorite, but the dedication, commitment and fine acting we find there has an integrity all its own.
The Fault in Our Stars is about Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a young intelligent woman dying of cancer. In a poorly presented and unfortunately conceived support group, she meets young, handsome, winsome cancer survivor Gus (Ansel Elgort), who has a prosthetic left leg and more charm than a Disney prince.
There is nothing really new here. There is the requisite slow falling-in-love track throughout, and the requisite “unexpected” twist. But while adhering to the rules of the genre, it fills every possible blank space with life and its own truth. You can argue convincingly that Gus is too perfect, the film is too long by 20 minutes, and that the trip to Amsterdam is impossible and shoe-horned in for the scenery and change of pace. Yet objections ultimately crumble and fall at the high level of acting and the complete commitment to each moment that the film offers.
Shailene Woodley isn’t the only reason to see this film, but her performance would be enough to. After The Descendants, it became obvious that this was an excellent young actress with great promise. Her role in Divergent only showed that yes, she could carry a film—hardly a surprise. Here she gives what may be the best performance by an American actress this year so far, and perhaps still the best by the end of the year. She makes every moment both real and alive. Every small look, every quick thought passing through her mind, every line that could have been eye-rollingly clichéd—she delivers them as if they had just sprung up from her heart or mind. Her arc, from shut down and slightly bitter to open-minded and openhearted, is both par for the genre’s course and completely believable in her capable hands. Much more could be said, but suffice it to say that her performance is both great and enjoyable.
Elgort, as he perhaps should be, is not quite in her league, but is excellent. He isn’t called to go to the places Woodley is called to as an actress, but finds his character and stays in it the whole time. Their interaction is real and a joy to behold, as characters in the film and as fine young actors doing stellar work.
As Hazel’s mother, Laura Dern returns to first-tier acting and helps fulfill her early promise as a younger actress. As “in the moment” as the two younger actors are, Dern hits her notes nearly perfectly as an almost over-concerned mother. We sometimes laugh at her when we see her through Hazel’s eyes, but we always return to respecting and understanding her mother’s aching heart. From her way of rushing into Hazel’s bedroom at the first sign of possible trouble to her constant efforts to remain positive—against all odds and common sense—Dern is absolutely convincing, helping to balance the film by bringing strong acting to the older generation and helping us to see the effects of the disease on the caretakers.
Sam Trammell as the father isn’t quite a perfect fit. Looking like a cross between Colin Farrell and Brad Pitt, he doesn’t look old enough to be Hazel’s father, in spite of the facial hair. He also isn’t in the same acting league as Woodley and Dern. Yet even with that said, the film uses him well by pushing him a little into the background, which is not inappropriate. A teenage girl would most likely be closer to her mother, who is the comforter and here, the more emotional parent. Many dads don’t quite know how to connect with a teenage daughter, much less a sharp-edged one dying of cancer who verbally pushes one away as quickly as she would say hello. So what seems at first like an acting weakness is actually of a part with the film’s success at portraying a concerned but unsure father who is in the background, but is always there, always hoping to provide some comfort and strength.
There are a few negatives. The subplot of the American author now living in Amsterdam is never really a good fit structurally. Yes, it provides a new background for some of the action, but the whole sequence is little more than an elongated romantic montage from an ‘80s film. The author, a distracting but solid Willem Dafoe, doesn’t quite work as a plot device. He strings some activities together for our leads, but ultimately provides little more than a bit of harsh fresh air and a common enemy for our leads—as if they needed one more.
There has been a little controversy about whether or not the film’s treatment of the support group is anti-Christian. Though author (of the book) John Green self-describes as a Christian, he admits having trouble doing so because of some of its connotations. That tension is evident in the handling of the support group, which comes off (ho-hum) as an unhelpful if well-intentioned group led by a cancer-survivor nerd (And really, testicular cancer? Can we be any more obvious and insulting?) The “literal heart of Jesus” aspect is borderline offensive or ridiculous, depending on your mood. In a film that treats every other person with respect, it’s sad to see yet another portrayal of Christians (or at least folks professing to be) as out-of-touch and worthy of just a touch of disdain. It’s out of character with the rest of the film, and there simply isn’t a dramatic need to go in that direction.
Lastly, there is also a little brouhaha (spoiler alert) about having the leads’ first kiss be in the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. From a historical, mature adult point of view, it can be seen as insensitive at best. In terms of the romance and demands of Young Adult fiction, however, the film builds up to it in a way that makes it work dramatically.
What doesn’t work is the previous few minutes just before The Kiss. While poor Hazel is making her way up staircase after staircase lugging her heavy oxygen tank, the background vocal presentations about Frank over-make the case of the struggles Hazel and Anne Frank have/had in common. It’s overdone in terms of the story and could be seen as either far too overdramatic for Hazel’s character or far too indifferent to the plight of Frank or any of the Jews suffering under Hitler.
These quibbles aside, The Fault in Our Stars is a feast of good acting, and a classic demonstration of what can be done to elevate a less-respected genre. Great acting and full commitment to the moment can cover a multitude of genre clichés. There is much more reason to see it than to enjoy Woodley’s fine acting, yet that one central performance would be enough. A star was born in The Descendants. Here, it’s burst forth.