by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I was dreading this one, folks. Not in the ways that most of its target audience were likely dreading it (the marketing certainly wanted me to be dreading it in that way, in any case), but because it set off way too many alarm bells. I am extremely resistant to films that blatantly try to push my emotions in certain directions because I detest such things; if a film wants me to spring a leak in the tear department, it should actually work for it instead of just throwing on a whole bunch of elements that will become tragic later on, sugercoat it by playing a Peter Gabriel song, in the words of the film itself, and shouting “YOU WILL CRY OR YOU ARE A HEARTLESS MONSTER” at me. The Fault In Our Stars looked like that kind of movie. “It’s a romance between a teenage girl who is dying of cancer and a young man whose cancer is in remission! START THE COUNTDOWN CLOCK TO THE TEARS!” And really not helping the film’s case was the trailer, the one that played before every gorram film for the past two months and made it look exactly like the sickeningly sweet and manipulative trash piece I’d pegged it for from that abysmal tagline (“One Sick Love Story”).
So I was disarmed by the film I ended up sitting through. I mean, yeah, it’s still syrupy and calculated to break your heart in two in the messiest and most painful fashion imaginable, but The Fault In Our Stars wasn’t content to call it a day there. Real effort has been put in making the romance something to genuinely invest in and it sometimes has a genuine edge that breaks through the schmaltz to inject a string of black comedy or subversiveness that makes all of the characters involved feel like people rather than ciphers or vessels for future tragedy. Its sharpest edges have clearly been sanded down for Hollywood (something I can tell even though I have not read the book), but the personality and depth are prevalent enough to make the result more than just a tear factory. Although it is utterly heart-breaking. Utterly.
The story powering the factory centres around Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a sixteen-year-old living with terminal thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. Her life is a simple yet sad one: she watches reality TV, she constantly reads and re-reads her favourite novel “An Imperial Affliction” and she attends cancer support groups because her mother (supposedly mistakenly, if we believe Hazel) thinks she’s depressed. It is at one of these meetings that she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Egort), an eighteen year-old whose cancer is currently in remission, although not before costing him his right leg, and is a charming individual who almost immediately falls in love with Hazel. His devil-may-care and laidback attitude prove to be what Hazel needs and the two begin bonding, although Hazel tries to keep her distance as she’s worried that she’ll destroy him emotionally when the cancer finally catches up to her. You can probably tell where this is all heading.
Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that this time. The opening 40 or so minutes, especially, the film establishes its leads as actual people rather than walking pity parades/ticking time-bombs. An early visit to the cancer support group, for example, ends up very blackly funny by reframing the experience as wholly patronising to those it purports to help. Both of our leads, as well as secondary character Isaac (played by Nat Wolff from The Naked Brothers Band in case you ever wanted a walking case study on how starring in a Nickelodeon sitcom at a young age needn’t always lead to premature career suicide) whose cancer is about to claim the second of his two eyes, are just as comfortable in cracking wise about their illnesses as they are making melodramatic speeches about its effects. And things in their relationship move slowly enough to give time for their bond to feel meaningful; these are two characters who fall in mutual love because they’re people who feel connected with one another, whose lives are enhanced by knowing one another, rather than it being predicated on one another’s ability to speak like their every line is a rejected piece of Shakespeare prose. I mean, that last part is still sometimes the case in the film’s dialogue, but it rarely feels clunky. Hell, at points it seems natural, the result of two teenagers forced to grow up too fast as they deal with their mortality; of course they may end up wise beyond their years.
The fact that the film was able to make me think this way about Gus is especially noteworthy, seeing as his character doesn’t exactly have the best of starts. He initially pressed far too many of my “this character is walking wish-fulfilment bait rather than an actual character worthy of my sympathy” buttons. He was hunky, had a smirk/smile that made his face the most punch-able thing I had come across in a good long while, is relentless in his pursuit of Hazel (which, given recent tragic real-life events, is something we need to stop portraying as a good thing in works of fiction, I believe) and has an idiosyncratic tick that he justifies as “a metaphor” (he likes to put cigarettes in his mouth, a thing that could kill him, but not light them, therefore not giving the thing that could kill him the power to kill him, and yes I know that that’s not what a metaphor means). Hell, even later on, after the film dials back and grounds him a bit more, he still gets dangerously close to the line between “actual human being” and “The World’s Most Perfect Man”.
It’s predominately a testament to Ansel Egort that Gus never ends up straying over that line, instead turning into somebody I begrudgingly liked, then really cared for and then shed buckets of tears over. No matter how ridiculously nice and amazing and pretentious Gus gets, Egort is there to root out the humanity at the centre of the character and keep him rooted back down on planet Earth. He also strikes up lightening chemistry with Shailene Woodley, who is also excellent. Unlike her co-star, Woodley doesn’t have to keep her character from veering off the cliff of likability and can instead focus on being the emotional centre of the film, something she excels at due being totally engaged with the script at all times, even in the voiceover (which wasn’t exactly her strong suit beforehand, as anyone who saw Divergent will likely quite gladly tell you). No matter how wordy the script may get, no matter how melodramatic a scene may end up, they play it all very naturally. Nothing they do seems particularly forced, barring the odd exception (an egging sequence involves a line said by Gus that I am amazed everybody let slip through without calling out due to its pretentious stupidity), and that very grounded and realist performance work, regardless of the material, is what made connecting with these characters so easy.
Of course, that naturalist acting is at times at odds with the melodramatic yet squeaky-clean nature of the film itself. Yes, despite stating its intent at the very top of the film to subvert all of the softening and sugar-coating that typically goes on in Hollywood tellings of tragedies, The Fault In Our Stars doesn’t do so nearly as much as it would like to/thinks it’s doing. This isn’t too much of a problem, as it doesn’t sand down the stuff that matters too much, but it’s most noticeable when the film doesn’t quite know that enough is enough. By that I mean there are times when the film indulges in romance and melodrama tropes which would be perfectly fine if it learnt to pull back every now and again, cos when it goes all in, it goes all in. At one point, Hazel has an episode and the entire sequence is presented in slow-motion with all diegetic sound removed and replaced with a mournful violin and piano. There’s a section during the finale that utilises flashbacks and then practically drowns the screen in soft focus, slow-panning and lens flares. Most egregiously, there’s a bit where Hazel and Gus are visiting Anne Frank’s House and Hazel, whose lungs are very weak, has to climb some stairs. The scene is backed by slightly worried music and shot in such a way that the point is adequately conveyed, but then the scene keeps working in “relevant” Anne Frank quotes and builds up to a big romantic gesture in a way that would be offensive if it weren’t so unintentionally silly.
These are the most notable instances of the film going overboard and, thankfully, they’re in the minority. Most of the rest of the softening instead comes from the film’s score and soundtrack which are, you guessed it, dreamy reverb-drenched guitar and piano instrumentals, and soft indie-folk respectively. They’re fine, most are really quite nice in isolation (I do have a soft spot for well executed versions of both of those), but they do betray the edge the film wants to have. It’s why the appearance of the cantankerous author of Hazel and Gus’ favourite novel (Willem Dafoe who… well, Willem Dafoes the entire time he’s on screen) feels very weird, his love of Swedish hip-hop, and tonally mean-spirited and out-of-place instead of natural and intentional. I feel like you could cut his appearance out of the film (keep the trip to Amsterdam but just cut him out) and not really lose a whole lot besides 10 minutes, which would actually help the film in all honesty (it’s a little bit too long). Failing that, it could work but it just requires more commitment to that end of the cynicism-optimism spectrum than the film is willing to try, seeing as it believes that such a tone would necessitate the removal of a romantic candlelit dinner in a fancy restaurant. The film nearly strays back in that direction by hinting repeatedly at Hazel’s dissatisfaction with how her parents handle looking after her (her mother is relentlessly positive and her father keeps his distance), but it doesn’t fully commit which gives off the impression that later drafts of this script severely cut down on that element. Again, none of this is bad, because Egort and Woodley are excellent and the film manages to get a good balance between their natural performances and its commercial melodrama leanings, but the hints of an even better film are too tantalising and… and…
…ah, sod it. I honestly can’t sit here and pick straws at what the film could have been or how it seems a bit too sanitised and safe and sugar-coated than initially planned. Well, I mean, I can, but to do so is pointless in the face of this one fact: about 80 minutes in, The Fault In Our Stars finally pulls out its knife and emotionally shivs you in the gut, at which point the tears started and really didn’t let up in any considerable way for a good half hour afterwards. It didn’t matter that I had called the turn from the first time that I saw the trailer, it didn’t matter that the film had not-in-the-least-bit subtly arranged the pieces from frame one to get this outcome, none of the other issues and hang-ups mattered a damn bit. I was gone. The dam protecting the waterworks had burst and nothing short of a friggin’ miracle or a re-appearance of Willem Dafoe Willem Dafoe-ing was going to stop them. This is where Woodley and Egort really get to come into their own, as they transfer all of that hard work spent building up their relationship and funnel it into their new reality with its impending countdown clock of oblivion. It never once feels fake, they never once strain for emotion, they never once give off the aura of “see me acting, I am all the acting”. Hell, one or the other spends pretty much every scene afterwards shedding tears and it still works. There’s even a bit at a gas station where the film once again indulges in its melodrama impulses and Egort lets loose, yet it still works and doesn’t break the mood or spell the film is under.
I spent a fair bit of the drive back from the cinema questioning how much of that emotional release was due to the film itself and how much was due to personal events in my life that I’m honestly not sure I’ll ever get over (my granddad passed away due to cancer late last year), and I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it is down to the work the film puts in in those first 80 or so minutes. A real attachment had been forged between myself and Gus & Hazel, despite the fact that the entire film had been very obviously constructed around the moment the tragedy button is pushed and the fact that they rarely talk like one would expect normal teenagers to. To see their genuinely romantic relationship be slowly and devastatingly torn asunder during those last 40 minutes was genuinely upsetting and every time I thought I had cried all that I could cry, the film would once again throw up another poignant scene between the pair that would set me off all over again. I may have been played like a goddamn fiddle and I do not care.
And, in the end, is that really a bad thing? Movies are genetically engineered to force certain reactions out of us, after all. Can one really get mad at a film for doing what it was supposed to do? Can I really pick a film apart for hitting me with only about 80% of the power it teases potentially having because it doesn’t quite nail the pre-tragedy tone? Can I really call a film out on its extremely manipulative romance and tragedy when I was eating both up hook line and sinker? I may have had some personal investment in one of the film’s main themes, but that doesn’t explain away the exceptional work that leads Ansel Egort and Shailene Woodley put in and how I was wrapped up in them long before the countdown clock made its presence known. I could put a hundred asterisks to my recommendation of this film, I could nit-pick or just plain pick until the sun went down and I could try to pithily offer a backhanded compliment with my recommendation.
But all of them distract from these two facts. 1] The Fault In Our Stars somehow just plain works. 2] I cried profusely for 30 of its final 40 minutes (which includes the end credits). End of story, go see it. Okay?