By Nick BeJeaux
*Warning! Contains limited spoilers*
Having never heard of a certain novel titled The Fault in Our Stars or its author John Green, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I walked into its film’s unveiling at the Louisiana International Film Festival on Friday.
Within five minutes of the title, the word “cancer” was uttered and, I confess, I sighed. I have never interacted with a friend or family member who struggled with the disease (knock on wood) and the only other film I’ve seen in theaters about cancer was 50/50 with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – critics be damned, I couldn’t relate to that film at all and I dreaded that was my fate with this film as well.
But that wasn’t the case here – 30 minutes in, I was in love.
We wake up with Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), an extraordinary 16-year-old girl who finished high school early and is already taking some college courses. She also has Stage 4 Thyroid cancer with metastasis in her lungs. She carries oxygen with her, and is only alive thanks to a miracle drug called Phalanxifor (which doesn’t actually exist) that only works on 30 percent of patients. It sounds extraordinary, but this is fiction and what else would fiction be about besides the extraordinary?
Besides class work, Hazel is an avid reader, particularly of a fictitious novel titled An Imperial Affliction written by the equally fictitious Peter Van Houten that shapes her view of her disease and of life itself. This would be enough for Hazel, but not for her parents, played by Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, Enlightened) and Sam Trammell (True Blood, Undermind). At their insistence, Hazel begins attending support groups for teens struggling with cancer.
During Hazel’s second meeting she meets the one-legged, charming and exasperatingly positive survivor Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort). His burning desire to leave a lasting impression of himself upon the world immediately clashes with Hazel’s nihilistic perspective that one day all humans will be dead, rendering his desire moot – and she isn’t afraid to let him know it. Opposites attract and from that point on the slow pace of the film turns into an adorable and eye-wetting romp of ups and downs.
The chemistry between Woodley and Elgort simply cannot get any better – they are adorable to watch and it’s nearly impossible to do so with some semblance of a smile on your face. The pair bring an air of maturity to their characters that comes with surviving a life-altering illness while also maintaining a youthful joie de vivre and a desire to experience all that they can during their time on this earth.
Woodley is able to balance the strength and frailty of her character very well, but it is Elgort’s emotional agility that makes the dark reality hanging over the lives of these star-crossed lovers hit home. Seeing his character, the story’s stalwart source of positivity and life, descend into an abyss of self-hatred and regret was utterly heart breaking to watch.
Besides the acting, the film itself is a marvel of writing. Authors across time have endeavored to answer life’s essential questions: What is the point of life, love, loss and pain? Why should we care about today when all things must end? Not only does this film answer all in the most beautiful way imaginable, but also makes us realize that we ourselves held these answers all along.
20th Century Fox describes this film as its “pride and joy” and as far as this writer is concerned, this film is certainly something to be proud of. The Fault in Our Stars opens everywhere June 6 – Do. Not. Miss it.