(2014) Drama (20th Century Fox/Fox 2000) Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Emily Peachey, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Randy Kovitz, Toni Saladna, David Whalen, Milica Govich, Allegra Carpenter, Emily Bach, Tim Hartman, Bethany Leo, Alexis Hodges, Jean Bressard, Carly Otte, Elyse Alberts. Directed by Josh Boone
Life in general is rarely fair, but for teenagers who must deal with a deadly disease it is particularly unfair. Watching their lives ebb away, knowing that in the end their stay in this life will end prematurely, they try to find some meaning in their brief lives. It is hard to find much drama in the ins and outs of teen angst when you know your death is just around the corner.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She is unable to breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank. At age 13, she very nearly died, her tearful mother (Dern) whispering that it is okay to let go but that’s not in Hazel’s DNA. She’s a fighter and she survives, managing to stabilize her deteriorating situation by undergoing an experimental treatment that she refers to as her miracle.
She is withdrawn and reads the same book incessantly – An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten, a reclusive American author who has exiled himself to Amsterdam. The book intrigues her because she can relate to the cancer-stricken heroine but also because it ends mid-sentence, indicating that the heroine has died. She wants to know what happens to the supporting characters after the lead character has expired but van Houten has consistently refused to answer questions of that nature despite many entreaties by fans of the book to do so.
She reluctantly attends a support group that meets at a local church with a well-meaning youth pastor (Hartman) who rolls out a giant rug with a portrait of Jesus and abjures his group of cancer-stricken kids that they are literally meeting “in the heart of Jesus.” Hazel isn’t really looking to reach out and make friends – what’s the point – but she attracts the attention of Augustus Waters (Elgort), a free-spirited survivor who was there to support his friend Isaac (Wolff) who is soon to have surgery that will render him permanently blind. Isaac at least has the comfort of a girlfriend (Peachey) who asserts that she’ll love him “always” but is eventually freaked out by the reality of his situation and dumps him.
Augustus had bone cancer which eventually cost him the use of one leg. Before the amputation, he had been a star basketball player in basketball-mad Indiana. An unlit cigarette dangles rakishly from his lips to symbolize that he is embracing his cancer but not giving it power over him. Not the most realistic of symbols, but he’s a teenager and entitled to do things that in the long run don’t accomplish the desired effect.
She attempts to keep the irrepressible Augustus at arm’s length but we all know (including Hazel Grace herself) that eventually he will win her over. Her mom and dad (Trammell) are both overjoyed that Hazel has connected to someone else. The two grow closer but the real kicker comes when Augustus uses his wish with a Make-a-Wish type group to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet van Houten (Dafoe). Hazel would have used hers but at 13 she had used it instead to go to Disney World. Priorities, after all.
While the meeting with van Houten doesn’t go exactly as planned, it still ends up being a memorable trip although it concludes with devastating news – Augustus’ cancer, which had been in remission, has reappeared and it has spread everywhere. They both know that Augustus has been given a death sentence but they are determined that now that they are comfortable with being in love with each other that they will make the most of the time they both have left.
This is a movie that I am conflicted about in many ways. As most of you know, the movie is based on the bestselling novel by John Green that in turn was based on his experiences working with support groups of the sort Hazel made fun of early on in the film (and Hazel herself is based on a real person, Esther Earl, who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 16. Green, who was very involved in the production of the movie, pulled no punches in the book although for time constraints some of the suffering at the hands of the disease that the protagonists had to deal with had to be left out – but then again, the movie isn’t about their suffering per se.
Shailene Woodley is one of the best young actresses working today and already has an Oscar nomination under her belt. She may well get another one here although Academy voters are not known for remembering good work from summer films. She captures the many dimensions of Hazel and keeps her real. A role like this could easily lose its humanity with actors trying to play her too heroically or not heroic enough. Hazel is an ordinary hero, a young girl living with lungs that don’t work properly and the prospects of a short life. She does tend to push people away but as it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her heart in the least.
Elgort is a handsome guy with an engaging grin, but the part is rife with cliches – the free-spirited dying kid who is full of life. Not that there aren’t kids like that running around, but there are a disproportionate number of them in Hollywood. Hazel narrates that she’d like to say that Augustus kept his sense of humor (after the cancer returned) but that wouldn’t be true, but then the writers go ahead and make it true. Don’t say that a character changes without having them change. It’s dishonest. None of that is Elgort’s fault by the way – and I don’t doubt he has a fine career ahead of him.
You need to keep a couple of things in mind when seeing this movie. First of all, it’s manipulative. Holy Christ is it manipulative! How could it not be, considering the subject matter? Brave kids facing a painful death? And yes, you will be anywhere from misty-eyed to outright sobbing when the end credits roll. Expect it and deal with it.
Secondly, this is a movie aimed very squarely at young teen and pre-teen girls. Augustus fits into the young female fantasy of a sensitive, caring boy who happens to be breathtakingly hot and free-spirited, willing to accept the love of his life as she is and wait for her when she’s not certain. He’s loyal, loving, affectionate, funny…if he pulled out a guitar and played a love song he wrote for every girl in the audience he couldn’t have been more perfect. And of course Hazel herself is brave, beautiful, and of course in mortal jeopardy but never backs down for a moment, fighting for her life with dignity and grace.
There are those who sniff that this movie isn’t about cancer, but that’s disingenuous. No, the movie isn’t about cancer – you’re not going to learn the ins and outs of the disease from watching this film – but cancer informs this movie. There’s no movie (or book) without it. This movie isn’t about cancer in the same way The Godfather isn’t about the Mafia.
There are some beautiful truths here to be had here but you have to plough through some fairly predictable elements to get to them. I would have liked to see the characters be less perfect and more human. I would have loved to see Augustus scream at the faulty stars at the raw deal he’s getting. I would have liked to see Hazel lash out more than she does. I would have liked to see the movie pander less to the target audience and respect them more. However, that doesn’t mean this movie won’t satisfy their needs and strike a powerful chord in their hearts, and who am I to dismiss a movie that can accomplish that as well as this one does?
REASONS TO GO: Woodley shows off her Oscar-nominated form. Not a typical teen romance.
REASONS TO STAY: Manipulative and maudlin and unnecessarily so.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, occasionally salty language and mature thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s title is a reference to a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50/50
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Miss Bala