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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The Fault In Our Stars (2014): Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, directed by Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen.  Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe.  Running time: 125 minutes.  Based on the book of the same name by John Green. 

Rating: 3/4

**warning, there might be minor spoilers in this- can’t talk about this one otherwise**

            The Fault In Our Stars is one of those movies I wish I had been able to see disconnected from and/or unaware of the general hype surrounding both it and the book it is based on.   Such popular adulation has an unfortunate tendency to build up its own momentum and turn into something far larger than its source, creating an ideal or an expectation that can never possibly be fully matched in reality (see my frustrated and torn feelings towards Jennifer Lawrence).  As soon as people started proclaiming The Fault In Our Stars to be the go-to, life-altering, cry-pocalypse of the year before the film even came out, I knew I was in trouble, because there was no way I could avoid seeing it without such choruses of unchallenged praise sitting in the back of my mind, pushing me to judge the film harsher than I otherwise would.  Thankfully, most (though by no means all) of my concerns were alleviated upon finally viewing the work, and even though the book, as always, is a far superior product, I found it honest and well-acted enough that I can wholeheartedly recommend it. 

            Like more or less all stories, this is a tale of life and death.  Unlike most stories, this one focuses specifically on the perspective of terminally ill teenagers, kids stricken with cancer before even the chance at a more regular life presents itself.  We see this oft-ignored world through the eyes of one Hazel Grace, struggling with thyroid cancer, who has to cart around an oxygen tank everywhere in order to breathe properly.  Her life is a constant, repetitive cycle of terrible TV, numbingly asinine cancer support sessions, trips to the doctor for tests, and reading the same book, over and over and over again.  It’s another shining performance from Shailene Woodley, radiating a deep intelligence combined with a mixture of exasperation and resignation at her condition.  After brushing up against death a few years’ prior, Hazel decided to deliberately minimize her contact to anyone other than her parents, so as to spare as many people as possible the pain of losing her when her time comes (trials with a new drug seem to be prolonging her life indefinitely, but she doubts how long they can keep her going). 

            Through a friend from the support group, though, Hazel finds someone she can’t lock out in Augustus Waters, himself a survivor of osteosarcoma, and now sporting a peg leg to show for it.  After a few initial interactions, their companionship deepens into a powerful love that overrides (and, perhaps, is also enhanced by) their mutual understanding that their time together will inevitably be extremely limited; as Hazel puts it, in one of the book’s most poetic moments, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep- slowly, then all at once.” 

            One of several focal points in their relationship is the book An Imperial Affliction, itself a story from the perspective of a girl dying with cancer.  Consumed with the urge for answers (the book ends abruptly with no resolution), they travel to Amsterdam to meet the author, played with delectable horridness by Willem DaFoe.  The encounter that follows is a key moment for Hazel and Gus- an abrupt confrontation with a level of cynicism and despair that overwhelms their own carefully crafted, fatalistic nihilism.  It’s a scene that I wish had gotten more time to develop, because there are a lot of elements present concerning death and the different perspectives youth, old age, and the terminally ill have on it. 

            Sadly, this is an adaption of a hugely popular Young Adult novel banking heavily on its rom-com aspects to be the big draw, so those aspects of the story that get more wiggle room in the book are, in most spots, the first things that were apparently sent to the chopping block.  The movie strives so purposefully to effectively recreate the book on-screen that any discussion of it as an adaptation will exclusively be a discussion over what aspects they decided to cut for brevity’s sake.  To my disappointment, many of the scenes cut were among my favorites in the book, including several exchanges between Hazel and her parents (although those two are well-represented on-screen by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), and a few of Hazel’s internal musings about life, death, literature, and the void. 

            Such differences between a movie and a source material are largely a matter of taste though, and need not reflect poorly on the adaptation.  What did impinge on my enjoyment, on more than one occasion, was the soundtrack.  That may sound uppity and hipster of me, but I genuinely feel sound and music, or the absence thereof, is one of the most underrated and underutilized aspects of filmmaking, and is often the difference between a good movie and a great one.  The tracks here are largely generic-sounding indie rock songs, none of which managed to leave an impression on me, and some of which broke through the screen and distracted me enough that the intended effect of the scene in question was lost.  A common theme running through the book (and hence, running through Hazel’s mind) is the idea of nothingness after death, of the overwhelming sense that all that awaits one is the void.  Given the pervasive fear/awareness of approaching silence in minds of the characters, wouldn’t that last scene have been so much more powerful without a pounding rhythm of drums and guitar reminding you that, yes, this is beautiful and heartbreaking, so how about a good cry now? 

            Another element present in the books and, for me, largely absent in the film was a sense of the incredible physical discomfort and often downright pain that comes with dying of cancer.  John Green’s writing left me actively wondering what it would feel like to have water sloshing around in my lungs like Hazel does, and there is quite a lot of space devoted to the day-to-day exhaustions and agonies when Gus has a bad relapse of his cancer and suffers immensely.  I don’t like writing this, but in many ways, the movie is just too clean to really have more of an impact on me.  The one, lone scene that hit me like a ton of bricks is the one where Gus loses his medicine tube when driving to a gas station, and by the time Hazel finds him, the spot on his stomach is infected and he’s coughing up blood.  It’s the one unflinching glimpse into the world of physical torment these characters occupy that we really get in the film, and when it’s airbrushed away, all the pains, and struggles, and joys, and triumphs of Hazel and Gus feel smaller as a result.  Hazel speaks constantly of her resentment over the generic attitude given cancer patients, especially young ones- she does not want to be “that kid with cancer,” and yet is acutely aware that that is all she will ever be, regardless of what she does.  Such concerns are just never really brought up in the movie. 

            And yet, although I would pick the book over the movie anyday, there are so many moments that the movie gets right.  Hazel and Gus’ mutual friend Isaac loses his eyes to cancer early in the movie, but the real low-blow is his girlfriend breaking up with him right before the surgery.  Even when separated from the fact that the scene involves cancer patients, there is a raw realness to Isaac’s anger that will hit home for anyone who experienced the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup line.  And, for all the praise given to Shailene (and rightly so), I found both leads adorable in their mutual awkwardness.  Even when paired down slightly from the book, there is a pleasant chemistry in their exchanges.  Hazel’s parents and Willem Dafoe’s alcoholic Peter van Houten also provide a fascinating background in contrasting images, two opposite reactions to the seeming senselessness of cancer taking the lives of those so young. 

            I was extremely hesitant going into the film, and irritated at points by the far too hysterical crowd I saw it with, but that the film shone through both a terrible audience and my own highly critical mindset to make me appreciate it anyway is something to be grateful for.  This film’s commercial success is an oddity given that we are well into the middle of the summer blockbuster season (which, depressingly, seems to begin earlier and earlier each year), and having a film like this that is genuinely thoughtful is a breath of fresh air.  Just do me a favor, all of you who read this- let people react the way they want to react to it.  I did not cry reading the book, and I did not cry watching the movie.  I liked it, yes, but I felt no desire or urge to let the tear gates rise.  And I know I am not the only one.  We are not inhuman.  We are not heartless.  We just didn’t cry over one specific movie.  And that’s okay. 

-Noah Franc 

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