The Fault in Our Stars (opening today) doesn't aspire to be conventional. The film even begins with our main character, Hazel (Shailene Woodley) telling us that real-life is not like it is in the movies...you can't just brush over the realities of life with a Peter Gabriel song. But if you've seen one teen romance movie, you've seen them all, right? If that's your current stance, then brace yourself. The Fault in Our Stars is a beautifully acted, smartly written, gem of a film that not only defies expectations, it reshapes them. The film cuts much deeper and is way more insightful than many might initially give it credit for, especially since it is aimed directly at the young, Twilight-worshiping, female audience...the kind of movie-goers who unapologetically show up at theaters in gaggles, to hoot, holler and swoon over the eventually-shirtless male lead, despite the depth of the story.
Yes, The Fault in Our Stars is a tear-jerker. And yes, eventually the male lead, Ansel Elgort, ends up with his shirt off. But even the film's occasional manipulative jerk at our heart-string is allowable, because this film does what few movies can: It makes you feel something, intellectually.
Male critics writing this film off simply as a "chick flick" are hiding behind their own insecurities. The Fault in Our Stars offers up a surprising perspective on life and love, one that shouldn't land as being gender-specific. Despite occasionally succumbing to the trappings of the genre, here is a film that nimbly balances optimism with realism. A rarity, since many films typically choose one perspective or the other.
Of course, The Fault in Our Stars is based on the popular, best-selling book by John Green. At its core, it is a love story between two teenagers, Hazel and Augustus "Gus" (Ansel Elgort). What separates this story on the surface is that these two both have cancer. Many would consider this sad, the fact that such young individuals would be cursed with such an affliction. It's flawed thinking, really. What, as if the rest of us are going to live forever?
Shailene Woodley is nothing short of spectacular as Hazel, who is vulnerable and powerful all at once. Her life consists of constant doctors visits and hospital stays and she carries around an oxygen tank necessary for her survival. The oxygen tube under her nose is a constant visual reminder to the audience of her finite time on this Earth. And that's not to imply that the story deals with a religious after-life. Oh, the contrary. This is a film starring characters who don't have deep spiritual beliefs, or at the least, this area is side-stepped. This may annoy the super-religious audience member, but for the characters, it seems there is much more at stake...there is no "see you on the other side" option presented here.
Hazel meets Gus in a support group and the two are instantly drawn to one another. Gus has lost his leg to cancer, but not his spirit of sense of humor. In fact, his boyish over-confidence is the one grating quality the film possesses. Hazel needs Gus, because although she has loving parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), she doesn't have anyone in her life that she can really relate to. She considers herself a realist, not one who is going to get caught up in the optimism of others. Gus though, is a care-free optimist. He is just what the doctor ordered.
Gus carries with him a pack of cigarettes and always keeps an unlit cig in his mouth. It's a metaphor, he says, something about taking the very thing that can kill you and keeping it under your own control. The movie itself is chock-full of metaphors that reveal our nature and how some infinites are larger than others.
Gus eventually uses his "make a wish" on Hazel, so that they can travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel's favorite author, Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), a person that she basically worships. Let's just say that this man fails to live up to her expectations.
Expectations. Hope. Perspective. These are the themes that are intelligently repeated and dealt with in The Fault of Our Stars. At every turn, we think we know where the story is going, but it doesn't go where we expect. We just know and assume that its going to end sadly.
But a funny thing happens along the way. Yes, bring tissues, but the story ends (no spoiler) leaving you with a sense of what I will call "optimistic reality." Gus and Hazel, even as teenagers, have found forever. What makes their forever any different then that of a couple who stay together into their 90s? This movie defines "forever" and "always" as something other than a calculable unit of time.
Did I mention Shailene Woodley? Easily the best female performance of the year thus far. And Willem Dafoe is award-worthy as well in his juicy role.
Sure, The Fault in Our Stars is not aimed at the same target audience who will go see Edge of Tomorrow this weekend. But dismissing it as a "chick flick" would be like calling Citizen Kane a "black and white movie." It is, of course, but it is also so much more.
Genre: Drama, Romance
Run Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe
Directed by Josh Boone (Stuck in Love)
Opens locally on Friday, June 6, 2014 (check for show times).
Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.
How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time