fault-in-our-starsEverybody in the world can understand the agony and splendour of young love, with all of its dramatic moments and grand gestures. It’s a whirlwind of emotional understanding – an introduction to the notion of being somebody’s other, in good times and bad.  Now imagine that feeling, but knowing there’s an expiration date.  Imagine that your life and those moments of splendour could end at once, whether you want them to or not, because of a disease for which there is no cure.  Imagine that along with you, this disease could take the happiness of those who you love most, and you’re powerless to stop it.  These themes are explored in the searing romantic drama, The Fault In Our Stars.

The story follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenager afflicted with an incurable form of cancer that has prevented her from living the same lifestyle of most people her age.  Bound to an oxygen tank and distracting herself with her favourite book, Hazel starts to experience some depression, and her mother signs her up for a support group.  While there, she meets an infectiously optimistic cancer survivor named Gus (Ansel Elgort), with whom she begins a friendship.  When it blossoms into something more, Hazel finds herself reinvigorated by Gus’s deep love for her, but the realities of a cancer diagnosis complicate things.

It’s fair to say that if you haven’t read the eponymous book this film is based on by author John Green, you will be treated to any number of different sensations while watching this film.  The heavily thematic story touches on a myriad of different themes, all of which are carefully constructed to provoke even the most stoic viewers to smile, or in some cases, cry hysterically. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber do a fine job adapting Green’s beloved tome, filling the movie’s two hour run time with as many familiar happenings as possible.  Director Josh Boone is equally up to the task, perhaps understanding that with such beloved source material, changing even the most minor detail could draw the ire of readers everywhere, and in turn, he presents the best possible vision of Green’s work.  The characters are terrific and engaging, and the story is a powerful and honest depiction of how a terminal disease not only affects the afflicted, but those around them as well.

Woodley is a perfect and ideal choice to play Hazel, and here she employs every instinct in her arsenal to convey some of the most bold acting in her young career.  When we first encounter Hazel, she’s friendless and unassuming, restricted by the limitations cancer has placed on her mobility, surrendering her days to quiet corners and literature.  As the film progresses and her circumstances change, you can actually see the change in Hazel’s sense of self – it’s almost tangible.  When some scenes require it, Woodley really disappears.  The emotion she can convey through just a look is absolutely remarkable, and to be sure, the more emotional scenes in the film are raw and visceral, and the deep, inward places that Woodley has to reach to make them reach you will break your heart.

To a lesser extent, Elgort is a serviceable choice for the role of Gus. He’s handsome, relatable, and effortlessly charming, and he is also given a lot of meat to chew here, but he never lets Gus – even in his darkest moments – devolve into a maudlin caricature.  Despite his overabundance of optimism, there are moments throughout where his steely courage begins to falter, and Elgort slows down the tempo just enough to remind the audience that even the strongest get scared. Where the young actor really gets the time to shine is in the film’s harrowing third act, which, if you read the book, takes viewers on an emotionally-charged journey that must be experienced instead of described.

Backing up the two young leads are some excellent side characters. Comedian Mike Birbiglia is greatly under-used as Patrick, the facilitator of the support group where Hazel and Gus first meet. His brief collection of scenes inject some much-needed levity into the film. Willem Dafoe also has a small but juicy role as Peter Van Houten, the author of Hazel’s favourite book whom she visits with Gus on a trip to Amsterdam. Dafoe plays Van Houten as a cantankerous, drunk American expat who loathes his fans and belittles Hazel and her disease, but his frenetic inhumanity towards people in general masks an enduring sadness which we come to discover later in the film.

Meanwhile, Laura Dern and Sam Trammell play Hazel’s devoted parents who have dedicated most of their marriage to ensuring her well-being. While Trammell is relegated to the background in most scenes, he gets a few moments in the film to make his own, and he capitalises on them with a warmth and paternal grace that seems to come naturally. Dern plays Hazel’s mother with a constant alertness, a woman worn down by the mercurial nature of Hazel’s illness, heartbroken and hopeful simultaneously. There’s a moment where Dern has to tell Hazel she can’t afford to send her to Amsterdam, and it’s not even in any spoken word that Dern projects her helplessness, but a look that may move you to tears. It certainly did it for me.

The Fault In Out Stars is a poignant, thematic, and sometimes nostalgic meditation of young love, life, and loss.  While many may judge it for being overly-sentimental, it still has a strong sense of hope at its core, with a life-affirming message to back it up.