“The world is not a wish-granting factory.” The quality of a life is measured not by longevity, but by the zest and integrity with which it is lived. These are valuable lessons for any person, young or old, a major reason I welcomed and appreciated John Green’s young adult novel, The Fault in our Stars. Another valued aspect of Green’s storytelling is the light manner in which he carries his broad-ranging erudition, comfortably inserting references to Zeno’s “Achilles and the Tortoise” paradox, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into the flow of his engaging characters’ lives.
I’m happy to report that director Josh Boone, in his sophomore effort, successfully and faithfully brings Green’s story to life onscreen. Even if he shows no unique personal verve in the film’s styling, Boone doesn’t stand in the way of a terrific narrative either. No doubt, he was aided greatly by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay, as this duo has demonstrated a playful yet knowing skill in telling youthful tales in their prior efforts The Spectacular Now and (500) Days of Summer.
For those unfamiliar with it, The Fault in our Stars centers around the lives of Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus (Gus) Waters, a pair of older teens afflicted with cancer who meet at a support group. Gus is immediately smitten with Hazel, but the young lady requires a bit more persuading: given the fact that her metastatic thyroid cancer carries a graver prognosis, she fears intimacy with anyone beyond her caring parents. When Gus uses his Make-a-Wish to give Hazel a chance to meet an idolized author in Amsterdam, Hazel’s resistance is finally eroded for good (and who can blame her?).
The three main teen actors – Shailene Woodley (Hazel), Ansel Elgort (Gus), and Nat Wolff (as mutual friend and cancer sufferer Isaac) – play their roles admirably. Of the three, only Elgort falls into beefcake heartthrob territory, while the other two actors are refreshingly ordinary if pleasant in their looks. Willem Dafoe as usual is fun to watch, playing the obnoxious drunken author Peter van Houten, a fellow whose pronouncements are wise and true, yet boorishly insensitive in their timing. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are solid in their supporting roles (in both senses of the word) as Hazel’s parents. As a dad myself, it’s an added bonus to watch a film targeted for youth in which the parents are neither clueless dolts nor irrelevant Charlie Brown grownups.
I took pleasure in both the book’s and film’s use of metaphor, too. Gus frequently has an unlit cigarette between his lips, symbolizing an object with killing strength that he refuses to empower – a bit of wishful thinking towards the cancer that threatens him and his two best friends. Even better, Hazel and Gus enjoy a pair of dates at an Indianapolis park containing a giant human skeleton upon which a gaggle of kids clamber and jump.
For thoughtful atheists and humanists, I suspect the dialogue in which the young people struggle with encroaching oblivion and scrabble to find meaning in their curtailed lives will resonate meaningfully. John Green was once an aspiring seminarian and briefly served as an apprentice chaplain at a children’s hospital, so it’s no surprise that church and ritual play a part here, in two especially notable ways. First, the support group where Hazel and Gus meet takes place in an Episcopal church and is led by a not terribly insightful Christian survivor of testicular cancer. Some nonbelievers may welcome this portrayal of a guy using his religion as a defense mechanism to ward off uncomfortable emotion, but for me, he was a caricature whose uncomfortable onscreen time was mercifully short. Second, there is a religious funeral service in which the film’s irreverence is spot on, with a welcome bit of comic respite arriving when Peter van Houten counsels Hazel, “We need to fake pray now.”
More significantly, Hazel and Gus converse together about their belief or lack thereof in an afterlife, a very understandable concern for two youngsters facing terminal illness. Regardless of their differing views on an unseen hereafter (which they handle respectfully and nonconfrontationally), a focus on the undeniable here and now wins out. The screenwriters cannily shift their emphasis onto the “after life,” in terms of what happens to those who live on after a loved one dies. Hazel, Gus, Isaac, and their parents freely acknowledge that in embracing the goodness and beauty that come with love, we also must accept the inevitable accompanying pain and grief.
The Fault in our Stars earns its PG-13 rating through occasional bursts of strong language and a couple of sexual situations. But if you want to take your teens to a summer movie that favors well-earned tears and reflections upon mortality over explosions and collapsing buildings (that amazingly never snuff out the characters we give a damn about), I gladly commend this film to you.
3.5 out of 5 stars