The Fault in Our Stars, like author John Green’s hugely popular young adult novel on which it is based, starts with its protagonist, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), addressing the audience and warning them that her story isn’t like what you usually see in the movies. You see, she was diagnosed with cancer when she was only thirteen years old, and even if her story features young people falling in love, it is not a pretty love story. Hazel’s story is not a story, it’s the truth, and it sucks. This is a very ambitious statement for a movie to make right at the beginning. Especially a movie made by a big Hollywood studio whose business model doesn’t rely in realistically painful movies, but in fantastical escapism. It’s actually refreshing, and somewhat daring, that young audiences are flocking to a summer movie just to see the human drama of terminally ill teenagers. This is all to say that, while The Fault in Our Stars certainly gets a lot of points for its effort, it can’t really live up to its opening statement.
This is particularly frustrating, because of how close the movie comes to working. The movie is a big melodramatic tearjerker, and I am not ashamed to admit that my eyes got very watery at many points during the movie. This happened, mostly, thanks to the performances by Shailene Woodley (who remains the best actress of her generation at making the audience believe she is a regular teenager), and by the great Laura Dern, who makes a fantastic job out of the few meaty scenes she gets playing Hazel’s mother. These ladies are so in-tune with their characters that just their facial expressions are enough to get the tears rolling. Whenever I was with them -or with almost anyone in the cast, which doesn’t get that much to do, but is full of tender and effective performances, like those by Sam Trammell and Nat Wolff- I was being swept away by the drama of the situation. However, The Fault in Our Stars is not only about a girl struggling with cancer. It is also a romance, and it’s on that front that the movie disappoints.
The reason for this is Augustus Watters (Ansel Elgort). Augustus is the male equivalent of the manic pixie dream girl… turned up to eleven. He doesn’t have any flaws, which makes him awfully boring, but what’s worse is that he just doesn’t sit there and looks pretty; he actually talks. And everything he says is almost painful. I can’t believe writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who wrote the similarly themed but superior 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) left that dialogue in the script. He is one of those teenage characters that speak using really fancy words in order to seem smarter beyond his years. What we have here is basically one of the worst teenage romance cliches taken to the extreme.
There is nobody that is particularly guilty for Augustus souring the movie as much as he does. It seems more like all elements about the character aligned in the worst way possible. Like I said, part of it goes to the screenwriters’ misjudgment. This is dialogue that barely works in the original novel, and that fails horribly in the movie. Ansel Elgort definitely doesn’t help the situation. His performance is so primal and repetitive of previous “magic teenage guys”, that it’s almost catastrophic. I feel sad saying this, but I wanted to punch Augustus Watters in the face every time he talked. But maybe most importantly, we should complain about director Josh Boone (whose only previous credit as a director is the literary dramedy Stuck in Love, which I had never heard of until I found my parents and sister watching it on demand one Sunday afternoon), who fails to direct the young actor in a way that would make the character look like anything resembling a human being.
The thing about The Fault in Our Stars, as a novel, was that author John Green struck a very impressive balance between a quintessentially young adult story, and a more realistic tone that didn’t go straight into cheap melodrama, but into more relatable feelings towards disease and death. There are many things in the novel that one recognizes as trappings of the genre, but is willing to ignore in favor of the better parts. It’s a balance that I wasn’t sure the movie could struck, and one that it ultimately didn’t. It got close, but it just didn’t.
Grade: 5 out of 10