The Fault In Our Stars

A quick-witted, mildly depressed teenager who spends the majority of her time with her parents, watching America’s Next Top Model and rereading the same book… Even just a few pages in, I was convinced John Green wrote The Fault In Our Stars with me in mind. And I’m not the only one who felt that way. According to The Independant, The Fault In Our Stars has sold nine million copies worldwide to date. Even further, the movie adaptation made 48.2 million dollars in its opening weekend. So what is so special about this story?

What I find most intriguing about The Fault In Our Stars is that this character that I so identify with happens to have cancer.  She’s not a “cancer character.” Green created a character, Hazel, who is first and foremost a person, a relatable, smart, teenaged person, then tell her story which happens to be colored by the terribly whitewashed problem that is cancer. And even so, Hazel’s story isn’t about her cancer, it’s about her living her life despite the restrictions the universe has dealt her. And her restrictions just happen to be worse than average.

The Fault In Our Stars tracks a few months with the perceptive and teenaged Hazel Grace Lancaster who has terminal cancer. Though she’s currently doing okay, thanks to “one of those experimental trial drugs famous in the republic of cancervania for not working,” she has relegated herself to part-time normal teenager and full-time ANTM aficionado. She spends her time rereading her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, written by the elusive Peter Van Houten, who she dubs as “the only person who seems to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying, and (b) not have died.”

After being declared depressed by both her mother and doctor, Hazel is forced to attend a weekly “cancer kids” support group where she makes the acquaintance of Augustus Waters. Hazel seems to have met her match in Augustus as he’s both incredibly handsome and exceptionally intelligent, so intelligent, in fact, that he convinces the ever-cautious Hazel to watch a movie with him the same night of their meet-cute. They bond over book recommendations; Hazel’s: An Imperial Affliction; Augustus’: The Price of Dawn, a “haunting novelization” of his favorite video game.

The inescapable romance isn’t challenged so much by Hazel’s cancer but by her conscientiousness, which is both her strength and weakness. She’s so smart and kind that when the opportunity for love presents itself she wrestles with the repercussions of loving and being loved when her time is so limited.

With grace and winsomeness, Hazel’s narrative made me question the way I live and love because, after all, aren’t we all terminal? Just because our vitality is open-ended doesn’t mean we have more time than the fictitious Hazel or the very real, terminally sick all around us. We just have the bittersweet gift of uncertainty and likelihood, not to mention the illusion of control.

The Fault In Our Stars is undoubtedly special. It’s the only book I’ve ever finished and immediately began reading again. The characters are so beautifully crafted that you miss them before you can even put the book down. But the real significance is in what these beautiful characters have to say. John Green has more insight and heart packed into this book than I thought possible. It’s really no wonder that I’m just one of millions who truly, deeply, love this book.

And that’s just the book. Forgive me for focusing the bulk of my film review on the book. I tried summarizing the plot outside of the context of the book, but the two are too deliciously interwoven.

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The Fault In Our Stars is the most faithful book to film adaptation I’ve seen, which is satisfying for those who love the book. It’s directed by Virginia Beach native Josh Boone, writer and director of Stuck In Love and super-fan of Stephen King. The plot is very much the same as the novel, with a few necessary cuts and changes here and there.  The film is written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the guys behind (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. They did an impeccable job translating the tone and heart of the book for film, which in turn facilitated powerful and affective performances by the cast.

Shailene Woodley’s performance as Hazel will go down in cinematic history as an iconic dramatic performance akin to Sally Field in Steel Magnolias or Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. The film’s team had their pick of smart, talented, and beautiful young actors to play Hazel. And while Shailene’s incredible talent, intelligence, and good looks individuate her from other qualified peers, I think it’s her heart that makes her the only choice to play Hazel. Her first Fault In Our Stars-related action was donating her hair to Locks of Love and requesting others do it along with her. Not to mention she gathers and forages her own food and water!

I’d wage Shailene’s prowess as a forager doesn’t compare to her incredible acting. What I found most distinct about her performance was her vocality. Her character has cancer in her lungs, which causes them to fill up with fluid, thus making it hard to breathe and forcing her to wear a cannula. I liked how Shailene distinguished Hazel with her voice instead of putting emphasis on the physicality of her disability. It seems to me more subtle and believable, and it distinguished Hazel from other characters she’s played that could be comparable. [Note: the scene where Gus first tells her she’s beautiful reminded me of a similar scene of hers in The Spectacular Now – but Shailene as Hazel is so different from Shailene as Amy that the comparison was fleeting.]

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The entire supporting cast from Nat Wolff as Isaac to Willem Dafoe as Peter Van Houten are perfectly suited for their characters and on their a-game. But Laura Dern as Hazel’s mom was the most affective and memorable supporting performance for me. One scene in particular, when she has to tell Hazel that her dream isn’t financially possible, broke my heart. In the book, the scene, of course, is narrated by Hazel and thus seen through her eyes. And while Hazel is a great narrator, incredibly perceptive and empathic, it isn’t as heartbreaking as seeing the scene through both hers and her mom’s eyes, which the film does beautifully.

Hazel mentions in the beginning that the only thing worse than dying from cancer is having a child die from cancer. Laura Dern crafted a nuanced and beautifully believable character and kept that thought in the back of my mind throughout the movie.

And last, but certainly not least, as far as performances go, I have to commend the relative newcomer Ansel Elgort. I was anxious about seeing Elgort’s performance as Gus. While he did a great job in Divergent, I think I, like many other enthusiastic fans who’d been following him since he was cast, had excessively high expectations, so I became increasingly nervous before seeing The Fault In Our Stars. And while I tried my best to tame my unfairly high expectations, they continued to skyrocket. And they were surprisingly exceeded.  He’s equally matched with Shailene and has beautiful moments throughout the whole movie.

My favorite scene of both Ansel’s and Shailene’s is the pre-funeral scene. To me, this is Shailene’s iconic, never-will-be-forgotten moment of her best performance to date. Her delivery of the eulogy affected me in the way only Sally Field’s scene in the cemetery in Steel Magnolias can affect me. It’s just so incredibly authentic. And the scene works because of the support and performance of Ansel. These two have a great chemistry that this movie not only depends upon, but thrives on.

In all, Josh Boone did an outstanding job directing. The movie is beautifully shot and edited. It doesn’t indulge in sentiment, but it has just the right amount of nostalgia. All of the sets, costumes, and locations used are all beautifully designed and compiled. The team behind this movie, the writers, performers, everyone, captured the book in the way only people who love the book could.

*Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now is the latest in a soul train of recent films reclaiming the coming-of-age sub-genre. Based on the book by Tim Tharp and adapted by the writers of (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now gives a raw look at the transition from teenage-hood to whatever comes next. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give riveting, career-turning performances with incredible chemistry and hardly any makeup.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is your favorite ex-boyfriend. He’s the guy everyone wants to hate but can’t help but like. He has a God-given charisma Ryan Seacrest would kill for. He’s coasting through the final months of high school, adding a few sentences to his college admission essay whenever he gets the chance, until his girlfriend dumps him. He mostly deserves it, but in his defense, he was helping his best friend “get some.” Like I said, you want to hate him, but you can’t. The romance between Sutter and Aimee (Shailene Woodley) begins, as so many love stories do, with her waking him up on an unidentified front lawn. Sutter, hungover from the night before, helps Aimee with her mom’s paper route, setting up a love story that unfolds over their final weeks of high school.

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Like the actors who play them, Sutter and Aimee are incredibly winsome. I was smitten within minutes of their introductions. Even though Sutter’s outermost layer is your typical high school jerk, you can immediately see there’s more to him. And not in the stereotypical “he secretly respects women and loves cats” way.

With Sutter, what at first appears to be charisma turns out to be a gift of helping people see the good in themselves. Tragically, that’s what he needs the most, someone to help him see the good in himself. When Sutter first goes to Aimee’s house for tutoring, they go to her room where he asks her about her books and the posters on her walls. When she answers self-consciously with disclaimers about how she knows how stupid her interests are, he responds with “if you like it, it’s not stupid.” A film about teenagers is worth watching when the protagonist is that caring and insightful, as well as selfish and harmful. Sutter’s fatal flaw is his disinterest in anything outside of this moment. He has a big heart and genuinely loves people, but he mistreats those around him by disregarding their interest in the future.

Aimee has a naivety that allows her to match Sutter’s confidence. She has this ability to be incredibly vulnerable in the most intimidating and intimate situations. Of course, she isn’t free from flaws and she even seems like the type that would be very much aware of her flaws. She just doesn’t think about them or herself too often. Her neglect of her own future comes from her caring for others over herself, to a fault.

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You can tell the movie was made with honesty as it’s highest priority, which also shows up in the darker undertones in the script. It’s hard to peg if the relationship is healthy or unhealthy. It’s hard to nail down where the characters’ good qualities end and bad qualities begin. I think that encapsulates the teenage experience.

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are two of the best young actors of today. They have a strong supporting cast featuring Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). The writing by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is incredible. I can’t emphasize just how visually beautiful the movie is, from cinematography and production design, to set decoration and locations.  Director James Ponsoldt delivers one of the best coming of age films in decades.

Photo Credit: 21 Laps Entertainment. (Cinemarcado/TheFactionFour/AceShowBiz)