The Fault in Our Stars (Fox 2000 Pictures, PG-13)

film fault-in-our-stars 75Gus is an unbelievably upbeat and caring fellow whose sensitivity and loyalty knows no bounds—in fact, he has a bit of a problem with boundaries.

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The Fault in Our Stars, based on John Green’s best-selling YA novel, is an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama for the modern age. It draws on the conventions of the former—most specifically, following the trials and tribulations of two lead characters whose perfection is only made more interesting by their fatal flaw—while using its central plot device (teenagers faced with impending mortality) to raise ideas of interest to everyone in an idiom that will be completely familiar to contemporary audiences.

Melodrama often gets a bad rap. “It was so melodramatic” often means “It was so unrealistic” and/or “It’s so much about chicks and their problems and I really can’t be bothered.” Such an attitude is shortsighted, because most commercial American films are based on the conventions of melodrama, whatever the subject matter (sports, parenting, war, etc.) might be. Don’t take my word for it—just ask film scholar Linda Williams, or take a closer look at your favorite sports movie and count how many times the film reached right into your heartstrings and gave a good pluck. If you’re really ambitious, count up how many times your favorite “based on a true story” deviated from the true story in order to more effectively pump your emotions and/or teach you a lesson.

But back to The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort) could be any beautiful young couple in love, were it not for the fact that, due to cancer, she must remain tethered to an oxygen tank and he’s missing half of one leg (neither defect harms their essential beauty). She’s a tough character, wise beyond her years, who sees straight through the kind of platitudes offered by most well-meaning adults, while he’s an unbelievably upbeat and caring fellow whose sensitivity and loyalty knows no bounds (in fact, he has a bit of a problem with boundaries). Of course they meet at a cancer support group and fall in love, as only teenagers can.

Their romance is punctuated not only by medical crises, but also by ordinary teenage problems and the usual teenager-parent issues (Laura Dern and Sam Trammel play Hazel’s parents with just the right mix of concern and wisdom). There’s also a trip to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author (Willem Dafoe), which, in a grand metaphor for life itself, turns out somewhat differently than expected.

The Fault in Our Stars does not tell the literal truth about cancer (believe me, you wouldn’t want to watch a film that did), but it does tell a dramatic truth about choosing to live in reality or to run from it (the leader of the support group, played by Mike Birbiglia, provides a comic lesson in where the latter choice can lead). Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s not a ponderous film, and can be quite funny as well as serious.

Woodley shows amazing range and depth as Hazel, and it is largely her committed performance that keeps The Fault in Our Stars from degenerating into a disease-of-the-week movie. Elgort does not fair nearly as well: He’s certainly a more limited actor, but he is also saddled with a thankless role that requires him to be both a manic pixie dream girl and a tragic Bette Davis heroine; I’m not sure anyone could pull off that combination. Elgort is also saddled with some affectations (posing with cigarettes he never lights, using his girlfriend’s middle name when no one else does) that may delight the teenage heart but quickly become annoying for the, ahem, more mature audience segment.

Dafoe creates a memorable character in his brief screen time, although director Josh Boone for some reason felt the need to provide an explanation for his behavior, an odd misstep in a film that otherwise avoids reducing characters to mere products of their experiences. More effectively, Nat Wolff plays a member of the support group (he’s losing his vision, but is more concerned about losing his girlfriend) and provides a bit of breathing space in a story that might otherwise become claustrophobic. | Sarah Boslaugh

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