It's easy to roll your eyes when a film's central theme is cancer. While such an affliction is inarguably sad, its handling in the movies is typically heavy-handed. The natural drama from the disease never seems to be enough for some filmmakers, who use manipulative tactics in a lame attempt to get the audience to cry, likely to hide the fact that their movie just simply isn't very good.
A good example of such a film is 2002's Nicholas Sparks schlock-fest, "A Walk to Remember." But whereas that film got nearly everything wrong, "The Fault in Our Stars" gets nearly everything right. Despite a moment or two of phony dramatics, this is an achingly real movie, one that explores the struggles of trying to live an everyday life with cancer and forming relationships that others take for granted. If the audience at my screening is any indication, both tears of joy and immense sadness will be shed by most who watch. Rarely have I ever had to fight so hard to hold back from sobbing uncontrollably in a theater as I did with "The Fault in Our Stars."
Based on the 2012 book by John Green, the film follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenage cancer patient who hauls around a portable oxygen tank wherever she goes so she can breathe. At the behest of her mother (Laura Dern), she attends a support group for young cancer patients where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who has been in remission for some time, despite having to lose a leg to get to that point. She immediately finds him charming and he, unintimidated by the breathing apparatus she's forced to use, thinks she's beautiful. They strike up a friendship, which quickly evolves into something more.
The story is told from Hazel's point of view and she lets us know through some early narration that what we're about to see isn't always going to be pleasant. She says she enjoys a fairy tale Hollywood romance just as much as the next person, but life with cancer isn't that simple, apologizing at the end for the potential sadness we're about to feel.
You see, Hazel isn't an entirely happy person, and why should she be? She's suffering from a debilitating sickness that is likely to take her life sooner rather than later and every moment leading up to that inevitable conclusion is going to be filled with hardship and pain. When she finally speaks up in that aforementioned support group, she doesn't offer words of encouragement as her fellow teenage cancer patients do; she instead comments on how everyone is going to die, that there was a time before humans and that there will be a time after and nobody will be around to remember anyone else. Essentially, life is meaningless, a stark contrast to the religious setting surrounding her.
But Gus changes her. It may go without saying, but she finally starts living. She starts getting excited about the future, despite the knowledge of her impending death in the back of her mind. Before meeting Gus, the only relationships she had were with her parents and doctors, but he opens doors she never thought she'd get to pass through. In her mind, she's an undesirable, a sickly girl forced to breathe through a tube in her nose, but Gus sees her real beauty.
Gus, being the selfless person he is, uses his still redeemable "final wish" to make her happy, taking Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author (since she wasted hers on Disneyland at age 13, "a terrible wish," he says). Gus, as portrayed by relative newcomer Ansel Elgort, is charismatic, funny, optimistic and all around likable. Coupled with the radiant Woodley, they make one of the best onscreen couples in recent memory.
It's their talent and chemistry that makes the movie as good as it is. It's not perfect, however, and hits a lull when they finally meet up with that author, played by Willem Dafoe. He's such a cruel, overly standoffish character that the drama that emerges from their interaction feels forced. Although his character serves a purpose later in the movie, the way his initial introduction is handled is sloppy and over-the-top. Every movie needs a good conflict—that's storytelling 101—but the presence of cancer and all of its complications is enough here, these scenes merely an unnecessary detour in an otherwise smooth ride.
"Depression isn't a side effect of cancer; it's a side effect of dying," Hazel says cynically in the beginning narration. It's an interesting quote, but after meeting Gus, she comes to realize that she was wrong because even on their worst days, the two felt an unexplainable happiness they had never felt before.
All that mattered was that they were together and, with the knowledge that tomorrow, in a very real sense, may not come, they needed to make each moment count. Nearly every scene has something to love and every moment Gus and Hazel spend together is special because you, just like them, don't know how long it's going to last. The movie is an excellent reminder that we should cherish our time on Earth and be thankful for the relationships we have because nothing lasts forever.
It may not be a big budget action blockbuster, but the tremendously powerful "The Fault in Our Stars" is nevertheless one of the summer's best.