The Fault in Our Stars (★★★½)

fault_in_our_starsI’m not usually a fan of young adult or YA material (both the books and their subsequent adaptations). I’m not usually a fan of overtly sappy romances. I’m not usually a fan of things that teenage girls fawn and screech over. I say that to let you know that I wasn’t the ideal audience going into my screening of The Fault in Our Stars, so the fact that I walked out with tears in my eyes and a full heart lets you know just what a success this is. My eyes welled up on more than one occasion and a specific moment legitimately made me cry, tears running down my cheeks and everything. Tenderly directed by Josh Boone (who impressed me last year with the underrated Stuck in Love), expertly adapted by supremely talented scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who’ve been snubbed for Oscar nominations twice already with their prior works 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now), and brilliantly acted by Shailene Woodley, this is a very special movie, full of emotion but also plenty of humor and joy as well. Along with a star making turn from Ansel Elgort, this could very well become the definitive cinematic love story for a generation. The book of the same name by John Green upon which this flick is based has already achieved that status, so there’s a built in audience for sure. As said above though, that’s not me, and I loved it. Woodley might be giving her best performance to date here, and that’s saying something. Buoyed by an instant classic of a soundtrack (which I’ll address more below), The Fault in Our Stars is something to behold. It’s one of my favorite films of the year so far. Bring your tissues.

Our protagonist and narrator is teen Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley). She informs us that unlike how cancer is portrayed in movies, she knows the real thing. She’s been dealing with it since she was a little girl, almost succumbing to it as a child even. She’s lucky enough to be part of an experimental treatment that’s keeping the disease at bay, but she carries around an oxygen tank and is always hooked up to it, so she’s hardly your average teenager. Her parents Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell) wish she’d be less depressed and more social, so they encourage her to attend a church support group. She rolls her eyes at the overly religious leader Patrick (Mike Birbiglia) and basically feels like it’s all a waste of time. Then, she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort), a cancer survivor there to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). Isaac is losing his eyes to cancer and Augustus/Gus has lost a leg, cutting short his basketball playing days, but he’s got an upbeat personality that’s infectious. He takes an immediate liking to Hazel and she’s fond of him as well. They begin as friends but it’s clear Gus wants more and Hazel does as well, though she fears him getting close to her since she considers herself and her disease a grenade that will one day go off. They do bond over her love of the book An Imperial Affliction by the reclusive Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). When Gus is able to arrange a trip to Amsterdam to see Peter, Hazel is overjoyed, though her doctors don’t believe she can make the trip, that she’s just too sick and the experimental treatment wouldn’t hold up. That’s the turning point in the film in a way (though not the first one), and I don’t want to say what happens next, but the second half is very different than the first in some ways, especially the heartbreaking third act, which won’t leave a dry eye in the house.

safe_imageI’m still stewing over this one, but I think it’s distinctly possible that this is Shailene Woodley’s best performance to date. She’s right at home when her character is a wise-ass and she brilliantly pulls off the heavier emotional moments. Woodley never overplays the emotion, so you rarely see potentially cloying scenes crumble into histrionics. Woodley was amazing in The Spectacular Now last year and she’s just as good here, if not better. Here’s hoping she continues to act in films written by Neustadter and Weber for along time to come. I was fairly confident that Woodley would make the material work, but Ansel Elgort was a very pleasant surprise for me. There are moments where he walks the line of being a manic pixie dream boy, but even then I liked how it was a male spin on that sort of a character. Elgort sold me on his character and the performance as the movie progresses, since at the start I wasn’t as fond of him as the flick probably wanted me to be. From the second half on though, he’s aces and really shows you a different side of his performance. Both Elgort and Woodley have terrific chemistry, both as friends and later as lovers, so when the script gives them time to develop their relationship instead of rushing it (a decision I loved and see far too rarely), you buy their progression. Nat Wolff is sort of the comic relief here, but he always lets you see the pain inside. I would have loved more scenes with Wolff’s character. Laura Dern gets a few very strong scenes as an overprotective mother, while Sam Trammell doesn’t have a whole lot to do as the other half of that parental unit, but he’s definitely solid in the role. Dern is the standout supporting player though. The aforementioned Mike Birbiglia (almost in a cameo) and Willem Dafoe have small parts (Dafoe plays the role a little broader than necessary, but he’s undeniably a presence when he shows up), while the cast also includes Milica Govich, Lotte Verbeek, and David Whalen. This is really all about Elgort and Woodley though, and man are they up to the challenge. I’d love to see Woodley be in the conversation for a Best Actress nomination.

While the film is low on obvious visual flourishes, Boone does a very nice job in the director’s chair. It’a a beautiful looking film (thanks to emerging cinematographer Ben Richardson), especially when outdoors. Boone lets a lot of quiet scenes play out longer than other filmmakers would, and it’s a decision that I applaud. It pays real dividends here too, even if the film is a little long at a few minutes over two hours. Like with his last movie Stuck in Love, Boone fills the flick with a top notch soundtrack, always finding a song that meshes perfectly for the moment on screen. It’ll have a life of its own beyond the film, I’m fairly certain of that. Boone is working with an adapted screenplay by Neustadter and Weber that deserves Academy Award consideration. Particularly since the book by Green has such a devoted following, the fact that they were able to create a cinematic story without alienating that group is a real success. More importantly though, they take a plot that could have been movie of the week quality and deliver something almost completely free of clunkers in the dialogue. They wring a ton of emotion out of you, but it’s all earned because they treat their characters like real people. Like I said above, I cried more than once, and I’m not ashamed to admit that.

Awards wise, it might be wishful thinking to assume that older Oscar voters will give this a chance, but if they do, I’d love to see Woodley in play for Best Actress and the script contend for Best Adapted Screenplay. There will be tough competition and it’s probably a real long shot for anything else, particularly Best Picture, but I do hope it makes a run at the nods during the precursor season. It deserves that, at the very least. Woodley’s come up short before (she probably was in the Best Supporting Actress sixth spot a few years back for The Descendants), so her time is coming. Hopefully it’s now.

It’s distinctly possible that the more cynical among you will find things not to like about The Fault in Our Stars, but in my eyes this is one of the bigger successes of 2014 to date. So much could have been melodramatic and annoying, but that’s all avoided here. Everyone involved has continued to bring their A game and the result is a very strong movie. Right now, it’s high up there on my work in progress top ten list. It’s undoubtedly one of the highlights of the first half of the year for me. Make the time for The Fault in Your Stars, and again, bring Kleenex. You’ll need it.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!