Last week, I posted a rave review of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ fairly hopeful that it would be able to make back its $190 million cost, and, at a minimum, be the box office champion of its opening weekend. How optimistic of me. Little did I know of the other weekend opener, ‘The Fault In Our Stars’. Other than the fact that it is based on a popular novel by John Green, which resides in my book collection but has remained unopened all this time. I was recently told that the ‘Fault In Our Stars’ is the most-liked movie trailer in YouTube history. And so, I suppose that it shouldn’t be a surprise that the picture made $48 million dollars quadrupling its budget.
The film’s contrivances don’t dilute its ambitions thanks to the beauty of its young actress Shailene Woodley and her portrayal of the heroine and narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster.
Hazel tells it straight. She tells us in the prologue that she is depressed, but not because depression is, in locus communis, a side effect of cancer. “It’s a side effect of dying, which is happening to me.” She was diagnosed at 13; while an experimental drug has stabilized her, it has weakened her lungs and she literally can’t breathe without the oxygen tank she is tethered to. Before her first visit to the support group, Hazel checks herself out in the mirror and adjusts her nasal cannula (tube with one end splitting into two prongs that are placed into the nostrils from which oxygen flows) as if it were a fashion accessory.
The boy she meets at the support group is Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) - he is instantly smitten with Hazel and takes it on himself to lift her out of her depression. He is a talker; though verbal to the point of being sort of insufferable, there are glimmers of charm. He lost one leg below the knee to cancer, but that in no way diminishes his spirit about living. Eventually his vulnerability is revealed, and touchingly so, but prior to this, his obnoxious posturing makes him rather annoying. Mr. Elgort does, however, find good rhythms in the scenes where his character and Hazel turn into fast friends, with him hoping it will turn into something more romantic (and her being reluctant because she views her time as limited).
At one point in the picture, Anne Frank is used as a device to heighten our feelings about Hazel. Subtlety may not be in director Josh Boone’s vocabulary; but that isn’t a bad thing. What he is after is maximal emotional impact; it’s as if this movie was engineered as a mass production of tears. If that is the product he set out to build, he has succeeded admirably.
Working on an adaptation from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who penned last year’s ‘The Spectacular Now’, an independent romantic comedy that also starred Shailene Woodley), Mr. Boone has created a movie filled with beautiful moments.
Laura Dern plays Hazel’s hopeful and always encouraging mother who spends every waking (and sleeping) moment on edge in the event of a setback for her daughter. Her defenses collapse during a mother-daughter confrontation about what happens if, or when, Hazel dies.
Hazel has another fierce confrontation with a reclusive novelist, played self-absorbedly by Willem Dafoe, who turns out to be everything but the man of wisdom she was expecting him to be. The resolution of this adds a nice emotional moment.
Ultimately, ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ is Hazel’s story, and this is Shailene Woodley’s movie for just about every moment she is on camera. Her wry wit admittedly leavens the heaviness of the theme, and though Mr. Boone celebrates the sentimentality, he doesn’t shy away from the moments of suffering. We see the painful moments. But, in such moments, there is a joy of watching a transcending, pure, and authentic performance. With ‘The Descendants’, ‘The Spectacular Now’, and now ‘The Fault In Our Stars’, it should be abundantly clear that this young actress is the real thing.
With every line of dialogue, and even dialogue-free moments involving her character texting Augustus, or her character coolly observing the people around her, every bit of Ms. Woodley’s graceful performance feels natural and fills the screen with warmth – it is as if we are getting to know a real person; there is nothing theatrical about this performance. It is only June, but I am making an early prediction that she will receive an Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role. Yes, seven months from now, Ms. Woodley’s performance will remain in the minds of Academy voters. And ours. What a lovely movie. QED.