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With interest in adapting John Green’s fourth novel running high even before its 2012 debut atop The New York Times best-seller list, Twilight producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen managed to snatch up the film rights to the hugely popular narrative, which may have been a bit of a “be careful what you wish for” moment. With the book’s millions of adoring fans eagerly anticipating the movie’s release, a distinct risk of blow-back was practically built in to the project.
Fortunately, director Josh Boone and his filmmaking team appear to have minimized the downside, in part by casting fast-rising star Shailene Woodley in the lead, along with her Divergent franchise co-star Ansel Elgort. Both are likely to be strong selling points with the film’s youth-skewing target audience, which is being further softened up by a robust marketing campaign and Green’s own substantial social media presence. With the onset of summer vacation and few similar distractions in theaters at the outset, The Fault in Our Stars should perform strongly out of the gate, with the potential to show significant staying power in the weeks following.
If any teenager can reasonably be described as “ordinary,” then 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is far from it. A cancer survivor since the age of 13, she’s fully in possession of both keen intelligence and sharp wit, if not her health – a challenging combination for a kid who could clearly do with a few more friends than she actually has. Instead, her most constant companions are the oxygen tank connected to the breathing tube that supports her seriously compromised lungs, along with her concerned mother, Frannie (Laura Dern), and protective father, Michael (Sam Trammell).
Hazel gets a chance to branch out when, at the urging of both her mom and her doctor, she joins an often lame though occasionally amusing church-based cancer-survivor support group, where she meets 18-year-old Augustus “Gus” Waters (Elgort), an equally precocious teen with a rather more constructive outlook than Hazel’s. Despite losing a leg to cancer, his disease is in remission and he’s dreaming of new ways to conquer the world, along with his best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who’s battling the affliction as well. Irreverent rather than cynical, he freely shares that he intends to “live an extraordinary life” and bonds with Hazel over her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, written by Dutch-American author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), which just happens to be about living with cancer.
Hazel is borderline obsessed with contacting the elusive Van Houten, but he never responds to her missives. So it’s a bit shocking and even overwhelming when the writer’s assistant replies to an email from Gus soliciting information about Van Houten’s book. Then Hazel gets a message from Van Houten himself, and the author invites her to visit if she’s ever in Amsterdam. Hazel and Gus, who often insists on calling her “Hazel Grace,” quickly cook up a plan to make the trip, but it’s nixed by Hazel’s doctors and parents, concerned that the stress of the journey will strain her lungs and disrupt the experimental cancer-drug treatment she’s dependent on for her survival.
Meanwhile, Gus is falling hard for Hazel, who is fairly smitten herself, but as her condition worsens, she pulls back, telling Gus “I’m a grenade and one day I’m going to explode and obliterate everything in my wake.” Undeterred, he counters that her withdrawal doesn’t lessen his affection for her, and when he manages to find an unexpected method of funding their travel, the plan is back on again. As both teens face suddenly critical health issues, however, the outcome of both the trip and their increasingly romantic relationship becomes appreciably more uncertain.
The greatest strengths of the film clearly come from Green’s novel, which resolutely refuses to become a cliched cancer drama, creating instead two vibrant, believable young characters filled with humor and intelligence, both facing complex questions and issues unimaginable even to people twice their age. Turning the screenwriting over to adaptation experts Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber has preserved the distinctly literate tone of the book, even if they do occasionally deliver scenes that feel overwrought.
The script makes an excellent fit for Woodley, whose feature film career really took off with The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, two similarly smart, self-aware films. Woodley’s wise and accomplished take on Hazel Lancaster will resonate with those inclined to view the world with a somewhat skeptical point of view, although they may face similar resistance to the prospect of romance entering her life. By dint of ample charm and considerable insight, Elgort’s Gus represents more than a foil for Hazel’s self-doubt – he offers her the opportunity to mold all of her hope and frustration into a fully three-dimensional, transcendent emotional experience, whether she wants to call that “love” or not.
As Hazel’s protective but practical parents, Dern and Trammell display a realistic degree of concern without completely smothering her, and when crisis erupts, their instinctual compassion quickly restores calm. Wolff, whose character loses both eyes to cancer, provides some suitably dark humor, although it’s left to Dafoe as the acerbic author whose young daughter succumbed to the disease to deftly deliver the film’s least reassuring perspective.
Boone’s appropriately light touch emphasizes the underlying literary material, foregrounding the performances with occasional underplayed visual humor and reserving stylistic nuance for more contemplative scenes, attractively framed by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott’s score somewhat literally underlines the overly insistent, folky-leaning soundtrack selections from the likes of Tom Odell, Lykke Li and Ray LaMontagne.
Production company: Temple Hill Entertainment
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Birbiglia
Director: Josh Boone
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Producers: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen
Executive producers: Michele Imperato Stabile, Isaac Klausner
Director of photography: Ben Richardson
Production designer: Molly Hughes
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Robb Sullivan
Music: Mike Mogis, Nate Walcott
Rated PG-13, 125 minutes
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