All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In at least three of her films — 2011’s “The Descendants,” last year’s “The Spectacular Now,” and the current “A Fault in Our Stars — her open, candid style of acting caused us to care for and about her characters. In each case, Woodley played a fish out of water, an outsider either by design or because she is too serious and mature to play teen games, and in each case, she has earned her audience’s respect.
Her turn as the resentful, hard-to-reach daughter in “The Descendants” could have netted Woodley an Oscar nomination. No one would have caviled. Her performance in “The Spectacular Now” as the studious Ugly Duckling who befriends and comes to love her high school class Romeo in spite of his neglect of anything real or important, was demure and genuine. It contributed to the admirable quality of James Ponsoldt’s film, one that was high in my Top Ten and worthy of post-year award consideration.
Woodley’s gift is an absence of self-consciousness. You don’t see her acting. She simply falls into her characters’ lives and portrays them with an authenticity that impresses and makes you take notice.
In Josh Boone’s movie, “The Fault in Our Stars,” taken from an ultra-popular book for teens by John Green, Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year-old who lugs around an oxygen tank because she is dying from a second bout of cancer that prevents her from breathing on her own.
Hazel’s cancer has reached Stage Four and is terminal, but her mother, played with a chipper modernity by Laura Dern, attempts to be optimistic about it, a trait Hazel disdains but tolerates because she knows her impending death will be difficult enough for her parents.
Hazel may let her mother’s sunniness slide, but she mentions she is not amused or encouraged by it.
Hazel is a realist, and Woodley plays her as such. She is frank when talking about her illness, refuses to entertain the illusion she is not near death, and wants the best life she can muster before her life necessarily ends, as she philosophically states all lives must.
For Hazel, this means not being coddled or lulled into false and useless hope.
In spite of her illness and its imminent consequence, Hazel tries to live a normal existence. She is relatively content in her Indiana town and has come to believe the small things, like closeness of family and enjoying favorite activities, are preferable to grand ambitions or accomplishments that won’t matter much when she’s gone.
Hazel faces life squarely. With the maturity one often sees in dying children, she has contemplated life and death and come to terms with the inevitable. She doesn’t want people to say “if you die” when they mean “when you die,” and she is not shy about explaining why she constantly has a nosepiece to supply oxygen to her damaged lungs and drags around her oxygen tank.
When we meet Hazel, the tube in her nose is the only giveaway to her condition. She does not seem weak or unable to do everyday things, like drive and shop and take courses at a community college.
For all of Hazel’s stoicism, her mother thinks she is depressed and needs more company of other teens.
Hazel explains that depression is a fairly logical response to terminal cancer, but, again desiring to reduce the pain her parents may endure at her loss, she humors her mom by agreeing to atten a support group for young people coping with fatal illness.
There she meets Augustus, or Gus, who has survived cancer at the expense of his right leg, and has a fear of “oblivion,” of having a life that leaves no stamp on humankind and future generations.
Gus is as quick of tongue as Hazel is. He is teasing, caustic, and baiting while she is more apt to show the literal side of a situation, albeit with humor.
The two become a Beatrice and Benedick of sorts, sparring verbally and entertaining each with, in Gus’s case, ready wit and an expansive outlook on life, and, in Hazel’s case, a way of putting everything in honest perspective.
The pair become good company for each other. Neither is sentimental about cancer or dying, and neither thinks there’s jinx or shame about talking about their ailment and the toll it’s taken.
Romance ensues. Hazel and Gus may not indulge in sentimentality, but “The Fault in Our Stars” and Boone supply it at a five-hankie clip.
That said, “The Fault in Our Stars” is not cloying. It comes by its sadness honestly. Bright people, who seem destined for interesting lives, will not live to see their third decade of life. Gus’s remission won’t last any more than Hazel’s did. Boone and his cast are genuine in a way that keeps the movie from becoming melodramatic and pandering for tears. It presents truth. Young people die from terminal diseases. Youths spared death may lose limbs or both of their eyes, as a mutual friend of Gus and Hazel, played with geeky charm by Nat Wolff, does from retinal cancer.
Reality is not always fair, and cancer develops unaware of age or a person’s potential. “The Fault in Our Stars” becomes heartbreaking because Boone, through Green and scriptwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, joyfully presents two people of spirit and attractiveness. Gus and Hazel are the teen couple you’d want your child and his or her partner to be. They display intelligence. They can be self-effacing and flippant. They accept their random fate. Boone doesn’t need to resort to “Love Story” tactics, angel choirs, or tell-tale violins. He does something better. He lets you fall in love with two young people who may be too good to exist today but serve as the laudable centerpieces of a film which tells us from the outset one of both have to die.
Hazel and Gus, or more to the point, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, who portray them, make a grand romantic pair, Gus with his exuberant élan, esprit, and sense of play, Hazel with her appreciation of Gus’s foolery and straightforward approach to life…and death. They are the reason “The Fault in Our Stars” works so well and is so moving.
Green, Neustadter, and Weber give in to some romcom maneuvering. Hazel admires an author who lives in Amsterdam, and the writers, and Gus, figure out a way to get her to go to Holland and meet him. But even that plot contrivance enhances rather than damages the honest and likeable tone of Boone’s movie because you enjoy seeing Hazel and Gus on holiday and able to bond in the way couples do and should. The setting may be fairy-tale, especially since the Dutch excursion is brought about by Gus using the wish to which he’s entitled from a charity, but the effect is winsome and winning. You revel in the kids’ Amsterdam adventure.
Green is also careful to make the trip a triumph of sorts. Hazel is told by her physicians she is too sick to go abroad and defies the overly cautious docs anyhow. I know, this sort of plot twist might seem trite, but Boone and company make it a victory. Instead of bearding the protective doctors and taking a spiteful stance, ‘The Fault in Our Stars” uses the logical argument that Hazel is dying, so what can be the harm of her taking a trip to meet someone whose book she has read numerous times and carries with her like a Bible? I know, firsthand, from taking care of my terminally ill parents, that a time arrives when quality of life supersedes quantity, and if a ride to Atlantic City when one can barely walk, or if a stroll around hospital corridors pleases even though a heart attack has left one with only 37 percent heart capacity, then a trip to the shore and walk through the wards it is, naysayers, even if they’re nurses, be damned!
“The Fault in Our Stars” celebrates life and confronts the reality of death. It doesn’t ladle on pathos, but it doesn’t sugar-coat either. It makes it clear that a life in not measured in time but in experience and how open one is to enjoying the days allotted. Hazel and Gus provide something valuable for each other in a brief period they know cannot last because one or both will soon die. The situation is that simple and that candidly faced. The experience of Anne Frank also becomes an example as the teens visit the Anne Frank house while in Amsterdam.
The Amsterdam trip is not all roses. The author Hazel admires so turns out to be less friendly or sage than she’s hoped. Lemonade is quickly made from that happenstance, both in the conclusions Hazel and Gus draw from meeting the sour genius and in a crusty performance by Willem Dafoe in the role.
Ansel Elgort is as disarming and casually realistic in his role as Shailene Woodley is as Hazel. Elgort endows Gus with a generous life spirit. He is an encourager and enabler in the best way. The affability and sparkle Elgort displays, and his ability to buoy others, makes it harder to bear when Gus’s cancer, which he believed to be cured, returns.
Crying is unavoidable while watching “The Fault in Our Stars.” The tears are well-earned. Hazel and Gus, and Woodley and the chivalrously ebullient Elgort, worthily elicit a strong reaction from their audience.