The Fault in Our Stars (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
1Sep/140

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

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Hazel is living on borrowed time and, sensing a growing sadness, is pushed by her mother to go to a cancer support group for cancer survivors.  There she meets Augustus, a boy with confidence in his voice and loss of his own.  The Fault in Our Stars, which tells the story of their relationship, is an adaptation of John Green's novel of the same name, and the second feature-film of director Josh Boone.

Our expectationsI'm sure that there are people out there who will approach The Fault in Our Stars with a list of cancer film clichés and check each off as the film marches the lovebirds toward the inevitable.  Potentially worse, there is a streak of postmodernism which runs through the narration which calls attention to this lack of originality from start to finish.  So what do we really want - another Nicholas Sparks treatment of cancer where two pretty white people find love amidst the diseased cells?  Or something that stokes the intellectual side as well, acknowledging the tropes inherent in these kinds of stories, but reduces the terrible reality behind the disease?

What director Josh Boone has done here along with the screenwriting duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is extremely difficult.  The Fault in Our Stars embraces the storytelling clichés of that perfect day, the downward turn, the impossible dream obtained, but tempers them with superb craft and knowledge that these common aspects of cancer stories endure because of the painful truth each has.  It is a mature fairytale with adolescents that does not shirk from the physical realities of their condition and aspires to show how these stories not only help us live, but ease us into death.

The Fault in Our Stars succeeds not because of its humor, though I had many belly laughs, or its realistic treatment of cancer.  It succeeds treats Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort) with dignity and respect, does not reduce their respective outlooks on life into easy-to-digest tidbits of wisdom, and that they are conflicted people with different interests and philosophies in life.  Though that respectful treatment does not come through at first, and it's entirely possible to play indie film bingo and tap out early with some of the precociousness on display, but even those visual and audio tropes have a purpose.

The camera treats Hazel as aware of the death that everyone knows is coming, but she copes with on her terms.

The camera treats Hazel as aware of the death that everyone is expecting, but she copes with and refutes on her terms.

Admittedly, I was weary of the direction The Fault in Our Stars was veering toward from its early film aesthetic.  Sometime around 2004 ,when Napoleon Dynamite was a tremendous success, it seemed every indie film having to do with teenagers to young 20-somethings was contractually obligated to have hand-drawn credits set to a sometimes ironic collection of pop/rock songs.  Here we've got Hazel sarcastically talking about her life over chalk credits and a screechy original composition about Jesus Christ.  That was a bit much, and by the time her would-be paramour Augustus enters the frame with an unlit cigarette in his mouth because he needs to "Put the thing between your teeth that's going to kill you" I was just about set to eye roll my way through the next hour and fifty minutes.

But like any adolescent, these are coping mechanisms, and the craft quickly grows much better than that.  Observe the camerawork in that first support group meeting that Hazel goes to.  It circles the crowd, centers on a ridiculous overhead shot of the Jesus mat, and cuts to the participants into their own frame.  This is the first sure sign that The Fault in Our Stars isn't playing by the indie step-by-step guide to picture-book framing, but is interested in giving each one of these people space to breathe and be themselves for a moment.  The direction is never restless, but respectful, never intruding on moments that the characters want to keep for themselves.

Then a true shock.  A smash cut into Hazel's past, the camera floats around her body and family as she goes in for treatment, the rack focus goes in and out before finally settling on the face of Hazel's mother, Frannie (Laura Dern).  She says something I rarely hear in these stories, "You can let go sweetie.  Don't be afraid."  In one perfect moment, The Fault in Our Stars becomes profoundly empathetic.  It's one thing to always push for survival, no matter the consequences, and another altogether to try and understand the endless pain of the person you want to save and being brave enough to let them make the choice to let go or not.

There are some nice moments of levity in The Fault in Our Stars, especially during this meeting "literally" at the heart of Jesus.

There are some nice moments of levity in The Fault in Our Stars, especially during this meeting "literally" at the heart of Jesus.

This empathy is reflected in the way the camera observes Hazel and Augustus through their courtship.  In one of the best images of the film, Frannie and her husband (Sam Trammell) watch as Hazel gets a scan and are stuck behind an observation window, the scene looking exactly like the cremation Hazel and her parents are ready for.  Shots like this serve as a reminder that Hazel is still here because she chose to be and they still have to cope with the life that they once prepared for her.  We get another reminder of that life in the shot of Hazel and Augustus' tall bodies squished down into a rusting swing-set that is still in Hazel's yard.  This isn't the happy play her parents anticipated, but a toy repurposed to suit what makes her happy even though she's sick.  It's her way of reclaiming the life she can't live in a different way, an undercurrent of strength that runs through the film with beauty and subtlety.

The visuals run only slightly ahead of a superb ear for dialogue.  What could have sounded overly literary or smarmy comes out beautifully from Woodley, and any initial annoyance I felt with Elgort's performance is perfectly explained with a late-film love scene that shows how much of his bluster is to distract from his missing leg.  Another subplot involving Willem Dafoe as a writer Hazel admires could have been a clumsily broad metaphor for the expectations of life not paying out like you expect.  But his role is messy, and unrepentantly selfish, as a reminder that the art we create and reproduce for others - be it as quotation or illustration - is an imperfect means of communicating that pain.  It hurts to recognize value in our ability to translate that experience for other people, something that Dafoe nails when his drunk author says of his dead child, "She suffered beautifully."

Hazel's life is an affirmation, not a rebuke, to that phrase.  The Fault in Our Stars no more downplays her pain than it does her joy and strikes a bare nerve by celebrating the ability to feel both.  Boone tells the story told entirely on her terms, accepting of the way she wants to live and the dignity she wants to be treated with going into death.  She picks the songs, writes the words, and doodles the sky - so what if they are drawn from a well of pop culture we all share?  By being so specific, she and the crew behind The Fault in Our Stars speak to that universal pain, and give lessons on how our art eases it along the way.

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Tail - The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Directed by Josh Boone.
Screenplay written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, and Willem Dafoe.

Posted by Andrew

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