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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

One genre that has been on the rise over the past two years is a slew of films based on Young Adult (YA) literature.  While several love to criticize the simple plots and Mary Sue characters that appeal to teens today, the fact is that (most of) the movies make a ton of money...and that's what Hollywood zeroes in on.  The latest YA adaptation is perhaps the first not based on a series.  The Fault in Our Stars adapts a novel by John Green, perhaps the most prolific YA author currently writing.  Green also has a giant presence on YouTube, which, coupled with his best-selling novels, has given him a huge following. The Fault In Our Stars is a Green's big moment in the spotlight.

The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year old girl with terminal cancer who has become rather apathetic about life.  At the behest of her mother, Hazel begins attending cancer support group meetings, where she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor in the form of an 18-year old boy who changes Hazel's life forever.  The two find themselves caught in a whirlwind relationship, seeking to take advantage of their limited time left on this earth.

While, admittedly, the description of this film sounds like absolutely everything there is to hate about YA lit, The Fault in Our Stars seeks to correct those who are willing to dismiss the genre entirely.  This is due to John Green's often beautiful words, turned into a more than effective screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber.  Hazel and Augustus are both very young, but feel so much more intelligent and in touch with their emotions than the typical teenager.  Many would point to this as unrealistic, and some of those detractors may have valid points.  Augustus, with his smooth charm and wit, does not feel like any teenager you are likely to have met.  He is, however, a character who is written honestly, and that is what makes him feel real despite the unreal traits.  Hazel feels more in line with a teenager, but the way she sees the world after her near-death experience with cancer causes her to be much more unique than the Mary Sue narrators which populate hundreds of YA titles.

Honesty is why this movie works so well.  From Hazel's opening narration, we are told this is not going to be your typical cancer love story.  While the film arguably plays on many of those tropes as the story unfolds, it is hard to deny that this is not one of the more truthful portrayals of cancer and what it is like for the people around those with the disease. The film is packed with honest experiences that anyone who has had a family member with cancer can attest to. A sick Augustus drives himself to a store so he can feel like he is doing something for himself, only to have his condition worsen. This is where Augustus really feels like an honest character, the moments where his wry facade fades and we see the scared, self-conscious teenage boy underneath.

Of course the love story is going to be what critics may harp on the most and, perhaps, it is the most cliche-filled aspect of this story.  The chalk drawn speech bubbles which litter the screen when our main characters text is easily the most annoying feature of the movie.  Yes, Hazel and Augustus' relationship is the focus of this film, the star guiding where this story is going, but it does not feel like it is the only thing driving both of these characters.  The shared experience between the two before they met and even more so their experiences together shape who they are.  Hazel is not a female character defined by her love for Augustus.  Instead, she is a character defined by her disease, and finds an escape from the darkness of reality in her love for Augustus.

Although the script for this film is the standout, Shailene Woodley continues to shine in a rising star performance. It will be very hard for her to go too much longer without getting some Oscar nods.  Ansel Elgort is also fantastic is Augustus Waters.  It is actually quite hard to believe this is Elgort's third film. Augustus' personality is one that is quite unbelievable, but, with Elgort playing him, you fully believe that this kid could exist.  What is perhaps the greatest take away from this film is that, without these two actors, it is hard to imagine the film being nearly as good.  Laura Dern, Nat Wolff and Willem Defoe give good performances, but they are not the main attraction by any means.

The Fault in Our Stars is very unique for a YA adaptation.  Not having any sequels, or being tied to another series, this isn't a movie that you go into knowing you will see these characters on screen again in the coming years (with the last book undoubtedly being split into two films).  Much like the lives of its characters, you begin to realize that your time with this film is going to be very brief. Those who read the book will no doubt be pleased with what director Josh Boone has done.  While this may not be a story you haven't heard before, it is a movie with so much honesty and heart behind it that it will be difficult for audiences to not become engrossed with the cathartic experience.

Rating: A-

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