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Cancer, youth, the fragility of life, and the power of love

The Fault in Our Stars


Hollywood is no stranger to game-playing. In so many movies, there is a manipulative tactic of simply getting as many tail ends into theatre seats as possible, by placating to various trends of certain demographics or tugging particular heartstrings so as to garner the most cash at the end of the day. From the moment a studio executive first hears the idea of a story through to the final DVD/Blu-Ray/VOD release date and everything in between, the question on everyone's mind of "what can bank the top dollar?" oftentimes leads to the detriment of the story being told.

The Fault in Our Stars, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort
Fox 2000 Pictures

But surely that kind of cynicism cannot be present in every film out there, otherwise what would really be the point? And it is not as though independent cinema is the only place where true cinematic art can be found either.

Thankfully the Josh Boone-directed tearjerker tale of lives cut short presented in The Fault in Our Stars is not such a one of these nose hair pulling "get 'em with the cancer storyline" contrivances, but rather a heartfelt and beautiful tale of love amidst frightening odds. And due to some delightful acting by the film's young stars, the story about death is brought beautifully to life. Shailene Woodley, one whom Hollywood has indeed tried to squeeze into their fiscally-dollar hungry machine via star vehicles like the Divergent series, has delivered extraordinary onscreen promise and practiced talent beyond her years in movies like The Spectacular Now and The Descendants. Her performance here is no exception to this staid, accomplished acting.

Onto the story: we are presented with a young girl, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) who is just on the precipice of heading into adulthood, and she has already come a long way in life through battling cancer and dragging with her an oxygen tank everywhere she goes, as if just knowing she has the cancer were not enough of a burden. She has a wry and witty sense of humor that gets her through the days, and loving supportive parents Frannie (played by the eternally youthful and spirited Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell, of True Blood fame), but deep down she (as anyone in her situation would) has grown hardened if accustomed to the dire straits in which she finds herself. She dreads going to support groups, (despite—or partially perhaps due to—the hilariously upbeat group leader Patrick's (Mike Birbiglia) positive spin on everything), and she caustically mocks those who try and be optimistic about death.

In support group, Hazel meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), and instantly the chemistry is struck between them. It's a tale as old as time, but the twist of their mutual illness adds heft to the whole scenario, particularly because of the way in which Hazel and Augustus interact with one another. They are both sublimely aware of their impending mortality, but they refuse to be conquered by it. Augustus has already lost a leg to his disease, and he appears to the outside world to be a vibrant, fully alive youth. His positivity and carefree attitude can only make it so far, of course, and when the physical pain crescendos towards unconquerable levels at a certain point in the story, watching his battle with illness, and Hazel's alongside him, is tremendously heart-wrenching to say the least.

But these are intelligent, thoughtful kids. That is what makes the movie (and the John Green book of the same name on which it's based) so good. You're not watching the lackadaisical indifference of some modern-day jaded teens that seem to be worn down by forces both external and of their own design. In the way that technology has infiltrated every aspect of children's lives today, (and the lives of all humans, really), it is refreshing to watch a character whose prized possession is a book (an actual, physical, paper book). || No, it should not be advocated that technology is evil and progress should be stopped, but it must be said that the lack of reading in today's society is absolutely damaging humankind's overall intellectual, emotional, and moral intelligence. || And it's not just any book, but one that delves into the nature of her situation and the death that looms before her and the passing nature of all things. (Her admiration for the book and its author drives certain detailed aspects of the plot, so this topic shall remain spoiler-free and un-discussed herein and for viewers to discover). This kind of display of a profound interior life makes the character of Hazel deeply lovable, and audiences would be hard-pressed to walk away not having completely been won over by Woodley's warm and gentle yet tenacious portrayal of her.

One can only hope for more tender stories of the craggy teen years like this one (or The Perks of Being A Wallflower, another great tale of teen angst and beauty); they sure beat the slew of rubbish teen comedies that the studios pump out year after year.

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