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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

A Touching Teen Tearjerker

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Adapted from the popular young adult novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars depicts the struggles of two contemporary teen characters saddled with cancer.

Sixteen-year old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) has terminal tumors in her lungs. She lugs around an oxygen tank to provide her with requisite air. Having an omnipresent breathing tube dangling from her nose is not exactly a great fashion statement for attracting teen boys. Hazel is a bright gal with a barbed wit and sophisticated tastes in literature. Her doctors have diagnosed her with reactive depression. However, Hazel insists that she is not afflicted.

Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) wears a prosthetic to replace the lower right leg that he lost to osteosarcoma. The amputation abruptly terminated his athletic career as a trophy-winning basketball player. He remains a hard-core video game fanatic. Despite his setbacks, Gus remains resolutely upbeat.

Hazel and Gus meet cute at a support group for adolescents with cancer, held at their local Indianapolis church. Hazel goes there begrudgingly to placate her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell). Gus is in remission, but shows up to support his newly diagnosed friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff).

Despite their obvious differences, there is an instantaneous attraction between the two co-protagonists. They share a snarky sense of gallows humor and engage in clever badinage. Everything is proceeding promisingly. Then, Gus pulls out a package of cigarette and places one in his mouth. Hazel is appalled. How could this seeming dreamboat smoke a cigarette in her presence, when it is obvious that she has damaged lungs? Gus explains that he never actually lights the cigarettes, he just clenches them between his teeth. He contends that this habit is a metaphorical gesture of defiance. It acknowledges the power of cigarettes to kill and his refusal to succumb to their allure.

Both Hazel and Gus are kind-hearted and decent people. Navigating the uncertain waters of an adolescent love affair is hard enough. Here, the fledgling relationship is complicated by the fact that each of the teens has potentially fatal health issues. Despite her obvious feelings, Hazel spurns Gus’ amorous overtures. She likens herself to a grenade that will inevitably explode, hurting everyone in her life. It is hard not to root for this star-crossed couple.

Hazel’s favorite book is An Imperial Affliction by novelist Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). However, she is dismayed by the book’s abrupt ending, which leaves many gnawing questions in her mind. Hazel sends repeated letters to the author. Alas, Van Houten is a notorious recluse, who has moved from his native United States to Holland and studiously ignores fan mail. Despite this, Gus somehow arranges a meeting in Amsterdam between the two teens and the émigré. The scene becomes pivotal plot device in the blossoming relationship between Hazel and Gus.

As she amply demonstrated in The Spectacular Now and Divergent, Woodley is a gifted thespian. She does not embody Hollywood’s conventional cookie-cutter concept of pulchritude. This proves advantageous for essaying off beat roles in which her character is defined by their mettle rather than striking looks.  Elgort lacks the acting chops of his leading lady. However, the pouty-lipped lad exudes likability and flashes a winning smile. The two, who played siblings in Divergent, demonstrate nice screen chemistry together.

Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber wrote the original screenplay for (500) Days of Summer and the adaptation of Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now. Here, they do a nice job of capturing the essence of the source novel. They pare down the book’s text, advisedly excising plot elements about Gus’ former cancer-stricken girlfriend and a storyline involving his friend, Isaac. This enables the film to clock in at just over two hours.

Director Josh Boone (Stuck on Love) keeps the movie on track. For the most part, the other production elements are similarly competent, if largely uninspired. The scenes shot in Amsterdam substantively enhance the film’s visual text.

The biggest risk for this sort of film is that it will descend into an overwrought melodrama. The Fault in Our Stars succeeds in avoiding this pitfall and emerges as a genuinely touching tearjerker.