In the landscape of best selling young adult novels turned into high profile movies, The Fault in Our Stars is a bit of an outlier. It’s not a multiple book saga, or the type of story that would be found in the Teen Paranormal Romance section of your local book store. It’s not some dystopia science fiction rebellion piece. It’s just a story about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. Adapted for the screen by writing team Scott Neustadlter and Michael H. Weber (of The Spectacular Now and (500) Days of Summer fame) and directed by Josh Boone (Stuck in Love), the film stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in the leading roles, with Nat Wolff, Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe supporting them. Woodley’s Hazel Grace is the center of the story; she’s a young, precocious teen with thyroid and lung cancer and a generally realistic (often confused with depressive) outlook on her short life. At a forced support group meeting, she bumps into Augustus (Elgort), a free spirit with a prosthetic leg who is currently in remission. Their attraction grows quickly, though Hazel Grace is reticent to give in and make things too serious due to her terminal prognosis.
What follows is honestly a relatively banal affair. The courtship process of Hazel Grace and Augustus follows a similar trajectory to many other films of the young teens in love genre, with the only major difference being the terminal cancer. Herein lies the problem of The Fault in Our Stars. It sets itself up as something unique, the antidote to the cliched YA romance story, but in practice it is the exact same sort of YA romance with the exact same cliches and plot movements, with the cancer diagnosis as the only remotely fresh aspect of the film. It uses terminal cancer as cheap emotional shortcutting in order to bond the characters to the audience without doing the foundational work to have this happen naturally.
The problem is exacerbated by the design of the Augustus character, the sort of person who could only exist in fiction. He is impossibly confident, handsome and charming. His disability is hidden beneath pant legs, allowing him to have the outward appearance of an Abercrombie model and the inward vulnerabilities of a wounded soul. He exists to please Hazel Grace, and seems to have no particularly notable traits beyond his relationship with his lady love. He is a Manic Pixie Dream Guy, the male iteration of Natalie Portman in Garden State. It is an unfortunate pillar of artifice in the middle of the supposedly grounded story, but that pillar is foundational to the tone and plot of the entire film. It infects everything, making the entire relationship between the two leads into a deeply idealistic and unrealistic exercise in wish fulfillment.
This is not to say that a sort of heightened storybook style relationship cannot work in a romance, or in a specifically teen-centric romance. However, when a film is grounded in such a realistic and deeply serious topic like The Fault in Our Stars is, it creates an undeniable tonal disconnect. This is never more clear than during the couple’s trip to Amsterdam in act tow, which amounts to a series of individual melodramas, culminating in a visit to the Anne Frank museum that is in shockingly and deliriously poor taste. That Anne Frank scene may be one of the worst in a mainstream film, and there is just no way to recover from such broad tone deaf sentimentality in the face of such lethal stakes. Silly moments like this irreparably harm the emotional truth of the characters, which results in the actual legitimate emotional climaxes of the third act lacking a sense of unmitigated truth. They ring hollow. After ninety minutes of manipulation and cliche, it is nearly impossible not to expect the other shoe to drop.
It is a shame, because the actors deserved better than this. Shailene Woodley has quietly built a career out of playing above her material with strong performances in generally unimpressive films like The Descendants and Divergent, as well as much better works like The Spectacular Now. She is roundly excellent here, working hard to fight against the rolling tide of schmaltz forced into her mouth by the screenplay. There is always a naturalism to her work that continues to be in play here; she moves and acts like she’s had that oxygen tube in her nose and that tank by her side for her entire life. Elgort is saddled with an unrealistic sketch of an approximation of a human being, but he is competent in the execution of what the role needs, even if the role is more than a little absurd. The rest of the cast has even less to work with; they only have any sense of character in relation to how they fit into Hazel Grace’s worldview. They are like ghosts, faded shadows who exist only while they are near our heroes, and dissipate into nothingness the second the camera turns away.
Considering that this film was written by the duo who brought us last year’s thoroughly excellent The Spectacular Now, it would not be unfair to expect more from The Fault in Our Stars. The Spectacular Now was notable for its naturalism, and the maturity with which it handled Woodley’ and Miles Teller’s characters and their issues growing into adulthood. They felt like real people captured on screen instead of film characters following a script. Even (500) Days of Summer, which is about as heavily contrived as a film can get, still at least feels like it is happening somewhere in the vicinity of planet Earth, which is not something that can be said for the story of Hazel Grace and Augustus. It is difficult to tell what holds the script back, whether it is weakness in the source material or weakness in the adaptation process, but something clearly went horribly wrong on the script level. This is every overly contrived, unrealistic and idealistic piece of trashy romance fiction when it had the prestige, the strength of casting and the intrigue to be a much better movie. Shailene Woodley deserves better than this. Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe (especially, considering his awfully drawn character) deserve better than this. Most importantly, the viewing public deserves better than this.