Another great performance by Shailene Woodley, a sweet romance, and some genuinely moving moments can’t quite save the cancer drama The Fault in Our Stars from feeling too sentimental for its own good.
When cancer happens in real life, it is a shocking struggle. Cancer can upset families, wreck one’s soul, and, under the best of circumstances, perhaps reveal hidden inner strength. Cancer is a dramatic world of death and survival. In movies, by contrast, cancer often feels like a plot contrivance. For one, cancer patients in movies all seem to suffer from a similar brand of movie cancer, which reveals few physical symptoms other than slightly paled skin and a propensity to wear knit caps. In a way, movie cancer often feels less like a genuine threat to the lives of the characters, and more like a bizarre fashion statement.
Sadly, Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars (based on a novel by John Green), a well-meaning, deeply-felt, and wholly schmaltzy teen romance, tends ever so slightly toward the latter. It’s what my mother would call “a five hanky movie.” This is less a real-life examination of living with cancer, and more a typical heart-swelling teen romance melodrama, wherein the romance has a n intense inevitability. Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley give it their all as the two young lovers, both cancer sufferers, and their scenes together are very sweet, well-played, and occasionally tear-jerking. But through the film’s entire second half, as the tragedies begin to pile on, and the two young lovers begin to spend their entire time together trading romantic aphorisms about the Meaning Of It All, and learning to let go and live on, etc. etc., you may begin to feel a little too overwhelmed by tears, laughs, tears, and tears.
Woodley plays Hazel, a virginal sweetheart with lung cancer who carries a respirator wherever she goes, and has to wear a tube across her face, which does nothing to mask her elven good looks. She is flip about her situation, attending support groups just to appease her doting mother (Laura Dern). At one of these support groups, she meets the handsome, flawless jock Gus (Elgort) who immediately takes a shine to her, and aggressively woos her. Gus is a cancer survivor (he only has one foot), but seems to be in remission, and is all smiles, charms, and disarming flawlessness. He is one hair away from being a Nicholas Sparks-style Flawless Rescue Stud (the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl). Hazel seems to fall into this boy with little difficulty, and it’s not long before they’re having picnics in the park, chatting about their favorite books (she loves emotional journeys, he, adaptations based on video games), and texting via on-screen animated speech bubbles.
It’s not that The Fault in Our Stars does anything particularly grievous, it just does too much of what it has. The romance is wonderful. Sweet, even. Until the sentimentality begins to tip, and the two young lovers begin having romantic moments in the Anne Frank house, inspired by the life-affirming quotations from the famed Holocaust victim. Or when they begin composing one another’s eulogies. I understand that they, being young people, are just now learning to appreciate life, even as theirs may perhaps be truncated by disease. That’s the good part of the film. But a few scenes of realistic, pragmatic, technical dealing with the ins and outs of their afflictions would have been appreciated. Real cancer patients don’t always let their diseases define them. In this film, that’s almost entirely what the two young lovers do, attracted to each other over mutual suffering and not mutual personalities.
I don’t want this to sound like an awkward error in judgment, however – that would have to be reserved for an emotional cheap-shot cancer film like, say, Stepmom. This is a gallon of ice cream, when a scoop would have done. A pound of candy when all you wanted was a handful. There are many things to admire about The Fault in Our Stars, and you will most certainly mist up. Sadly, for this reviewer, the flaws just barely outweigh the virtues.