The Fault in Our Stars is not the first teen melodrama about star-crossed lovers. It’s also not the first teen melodrama further inflated by terminal disease. The story is simple and borders on trite: girl goes to cancer support group, girl meets boy, girl falls for boy, inevitable pain and loss follow. It’s not the the originality of Fault’s story and themes that draws us in to this adaptation of John Green’s Young Adult novel starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, but rather the inimitable characters and their matter-of-fact (and often caustic) attitude toward their regrettable circumstances.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) has been terminally ill with thyroid cancer since the age of 13. Her life extended by experimental (and completely fictional) drug, Phalanxifor, and toting around an oxygen tank, the now somewhat jaded 17-year-old is coaxed into attending a teen support group for kids with cancer. This is where she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort), osteosarcoma survivor. Gus, a former basketball player and video game enthusiast with a flair for the dramatic, is immediately attracted to Hazel and isn’t shy about saying so.
After the obligatory meet cute, Hazel and Gus bond over her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, and its unconventional ending (or lack thereof), obsessing over a chance to meet the book’s reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). That Hazel and Augustus like each other is never in question, but is Hazel is willing to start a relationship doomed to end in sorrow?
As dramatic as the whole premise sounds, the story of Hazel and Gus is refreshingly light. The film, like the book, doesn’t shy away from the inherently depressing subject matter, but it also doesn’t linger on it. The film treats cancer much like the characters do — it’s just a fact of life, a pain that demands to be felt but doesn’t debilitate.
If ever there was a perfectly cast film, this is it. Woodley and Elgort epitomize Hazel and Gus in their mesh of wit, passion and grief. Woodley, who’s already demonstrated her seemingly effortless talent in independent films like The Descendents and The Spectacular Now, is authentic and never sappy. Elgort (Carrie, Divergent) captures Gus’ theatrical charisma without actually being over-the-top, and delivers what some might consider pretentious, unrealistic dialogue in a natural, non-cringey way.
The supporting cast — featuring Dafoe, and Sam Trammell and Laura Dern as Hazel’s parents — is also spot-on. Also of note is unknown Nat Wolff, who plays Isaac, Gus’ recently blind and brokenhearted best friend. Although his character is only featured in a few scenes, Wolff manages to bring depth to the role while also being comedic.
The Fault in Our Stars does have its shortcomings. A few scenes and transitions lack finesse, and certain plot developments may merit a tad more foreshadowing. There’s also a slight disconnect in some scenes that relied more on Hazel’s internal dialogue in the book, which doesn’t translate well in the film. However, this summer flick is thoroughly enjoyable and occasionally stylish. It pretty much has everything — compelling characters, humor, heartache — and though the basic story is commonplace, The Fault in Our Stars is nothing of the sort.