‘The Fault in Our Stars’ movie review: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort YA adaptation

Based on the best-selling Young Adult novel by John Greene, The Fault in Our Stars tells the heart-wrenching story of two teenage cancer patients who fall in love. You know at least one of these kids is going to bite it before the end, and I guess the possibility that both of them may die is what separates this from the usual Love Story-like love story. 

It’s a well-intentioned, well-acted, (mostly) well-made film that’s hard to really criticize, but give me a chance: this thing is also supremely dull, formulaic to a hilt, and goes on for a never-ending 125 minutes. By that time, I was worn out: this overbearing schlock that’s no deeper than the average Nicolas Sparks adaptation, but boy, will it try to convince you otherwise. 

Fault stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as the cancer-stricken young lovers, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who meet at a cancer support group and hit it off. Hazel has to wheel around a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes; Gus had his leg amputated at the knee. It isn’t exactly love at first sight, but Gus soon wears down Hazel’s defenses and an unlikely friendship is born. 

Both lead performances are appealing. Woodley and Elgort previously starred together (ironically, as brother and sister) in Divergent, released earlier this spring, but here they get a chance to display their acting chops. Woodley – who was miscast as an action hero in the previous film – feels far more at home in this role, and her intimate portrayal of the grief-stricken Hazel is what grounds the film in reality. 

But it’s Elgort who’s the real revelation here. His Gus is an initially off-putting motormouth, a gawky free-wheeler who isn’t exactly the kind of staid, quiet heartthrob we typically get in these films. But he settles down during the second and third acts – especially during the climactic trip to Amsterdam – and the less he talks, the more he reveals about himself. By the end, as Hazel falls for him, so do we (in a way), and we better understand her journey.

Yeah, so, likable leads, and the love story is mostly affecting. It also amounts to what, half an hour of screentime? These aren’t star-crossed lovers: there’s zero story tension in their romance, other than the knowledge that one (or both) of them will die by the end. But that’s such a well-worn cliché that we expect death in romantic dramas where the leads aren’t dying of cancer.

In what amounts to a plot, the two lovers read each other’s favorite books: Hazel reads a video game adaptation Gus gives her – which is never mentioned again – and Gus reads An Imperial Affliction, a beautifully-written tale of a young girl dying of cancer that has touched Hazel deeply. The author of the novel, Peter Van Houten, never wrote another novel. 

Seeing how deeply An Imperial Affliction has touched Hazel, Gus takes it upon himself to contact Van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe), who lives in Amsterdam and invites the two kids to swing by if they’re ever in the neighborhood. But can Hazel afford/survive the journey? In his brief scenes, Dafoe lends the material a gravitas that it hasn’t earned; his character is presented as a drunken asshole who berates the dying youngsters, but I found myself inexplicably siding with him anyway. 

About that trip to Amsterdam: The Fault in Our Stars is at its absolute worst when the pair decide to visit the Anne Frank House. Hey, it’s there, all the tourists are doing it. Even Bieber. So Hazel lugs her oxygen tank up all the stairs – refusing offers of help – and then she gets to the top, breathless, and has a makeout session with Gus while a crowd forms around them and applauds. And I’m thinking, jeez, have they really appropriated the Anne Frank House for this cornball schmaltz? Have they no shame?

No, the fault is not in our stars: I suppose it’s in director Josh Boone (Stuck in Love), or screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now, (500) Days of Summer), or maybe it dates back to original author John Green. His book was a smash, and I have no doubt this film will be, too: the Young Adult audience is starved for genuinely affecting cinematic fare, and this well-made hokum fits the bill.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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