Because I write young adult science fiction and fantasy, my reviews of movies and books almost always stay within those sub-genres. This time, I’m going to go 0% SF/F and 100% YA as I tell you why the film version of John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars is simply superb. Spoilers ahead, of course, so read further at your cinematic peril….
TFIOS is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year old terminal cancer patient, and her doomed love affair with Augustus Waters (age 17 in the book, 18 in the film). Ordinarily, your Wicked Uncle Kenton here eschews stories of this sort, the reason for which I will elaborate at length on later. However, my younger daughter Ally Jane is a self-described fangirl of Green and TFIOS (emulating Hazel, she has a blue “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” t-shirt), so I went to see it with her, several of her friends, and my wife Joni.
From the moment the movie began, I was hooked. Here’s why:
An old story told anew. Two young people fall briefly, madly in love before inevitable tragedy separates them: Where. Have. I. Seen. Such. A. Thing. Before? But TFIOS is fresh, different, riveting. You would think that you’d want to flee in the other direction from a film about young people dying of cancer, but TFIOS is engaging, witty, honest, and surprising. Even when you see something coming, it goes off in a direction you didn’t anticipate.
Example: Rarely does meeting one’s idols satisfy, and the intended Q&A session with Peter van Houten, Hazel’s favorite author, swiftly and horribly goes off the rails. As a grown-up, I’ve seen or heard often enough about similar experiences to expect how this was going to work out. What I did not expect was Hazel’s stunning reaction, as well as that of Lidewij, van Houten’s assistant, who takes Hazel and Augustus—and us, the viewers—on a totally different tact.
A story—and a movie—well-done. Disgusted by van Houten’s behavior, Lidewij escorts our young lovers to the Anne Frank House, where Hazel struggles to climb the many stairs (is Amsterdam as disability-unfriendly as Paris?). Weaving throughout this scene are recorded passages which, though from Anne’s famous diary, resonate with Hazel’s character and circumstances.
The scene where Hazel and Augustus help their blind friend Isaac egg his ex-girlfriend’s car is hilarious. The animated pop-up text messages and e-mails are an excellent visual touch. And the scenes in Amsterdam reminded me of another great teenage-romance movie that I saw decades ago, the overlooked and under-appreciated A Little Romance.
The acting is phenomenal. Shailene Woodley delivers as Hazel Grace, whether she’s happy, peevish, depressed (“I’m not depressed!”), ecstatic, angry, fatigued, sick, resigned, or devastated upon hearing of Augustus anticipated-but-nevertheless-wrenching death. Woodley was supposed to portray Mary Jane Watson in the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man film series, but she might not be able to because of her role in the Divergent adaptations; if she can’t, that will definitely be the Spidey movies’ loss.
Ansel Elgort mixes teenage cockiness and vulnerability as Augustus, and Nat Wolff ably serves as comic relief in the role of Issac. Laura Dern gets plenty of screen time as Hazel’s mom, though the fellow who play Hazel’s dad doesn’t get much to do. But it’s Willem Dafoe as the acerbic, alcoholic writer Peter van Houten who just blows the doors off the movie. His scenes with Woodley are among the rawest of a movie with plenty of angst.
“Sentiment,” not “sentimentality.” Here’s the crux of where the film succeeds, overcoming my aforementioned reluctance to watch it. My college creative writing prof J.R. Salamanca strenuously warned us about engaging in “sentimentality” over “sentiment.” The former is the ostentatious, affected, mawkish, obviously-manipulative tear-jerking that cheesy romance novels and Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies specialize in. The latter is the artistic expression of genuine emotion—and it is extremely difficult to get right. In my writing, I often go for understatement, but John Green—and this movie—are not afraid to tackle it head-on.
In a film about two kids, both dying of cancer, both in love anyway, it would be easy—temptingly so—to go the schmaltzy route. Though TFIOS doesn’t go there, that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful and moving. It would take too long for me to give you an example and explain why it’s “sentiment” instead of “sentimentality,” so just trust me on this.
As we left the theater, I had never in my life seen so many teenage girls crying, some of them sobbing uncontrollably. I admit there were a few moments when Wicked Uncle Kenton here had to grit his teeth to hold it together, though unlike most of the attendees, I was coming to the movie from a parent’s perspective.
I cannot too highly praise the romantic tragedy (as opposed to “romantic comedy”) that is The Fault In Our Stars. Despite its dark premise, it is a wonderful, powerful, ultimately joyful movie. Go see it. Okay? Okay.
Kenton Kilgore is the author of DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. Look for his next work, LOST DOGS, a young adult sci-fi novel, coming this summer.