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'The Fault in Our Stars': Spectacular young adult romance

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The Fault in Our Stars

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Bold promises demand to be delivered, and "The Fault in Our Stars" opens with one. Does it make good on this promise? Not exactly, but if you’re a young adult or a Romance devotee, it’ll hardly matter.

Here we meet young Hazel Lancaster, who but for having terminal cancer is just like any other teenager, and understandably depressed by the situation. At the relentless insistence of her mother, Hazel compliantly attends a support group run by a well-intentioned, if arguably misguided survivor.

One day, in walks an interesting creature with Hazel’s fellow attendee and friend Issac; this handsome creature’s name is Gus, and he certainly finds Hazel to be an interesting creature as well (although Hazel isn’t having any of it).

She eventually falls for his irresistible charms and the two strike a fast friendship, and although Gus maintains intentions beyond it, Hazel insists that it remain only that. This, because she feels herself to be “a grenade” that will, at some unknown yet inevitable point, explode and devastate all within range. To her, Gus is just one more person to be hurt by her passing, and she carries all she can manage with her parents, and her mother in particular.

How does one embrace the love available, when knowing that the very act will multiply the pain of the other? How to pursue the fullness of life while life presents it, knowing that it will be cut short in the loomingly near future? In fact, why even pursue it at all, knowing it will lead to nothing – perhaps literally?

For Hazel, that trip to Disney courtesy of the wish-fulfilling non-profit did the job nicely, and there’s no need to pursue further activity or relationship, thank you very much.

New friend Gus remains undaunted, however, and in the face of all coming against the both of them, pursues her love with a dedication that knows it’s for life, and but for a short time, and these lengths are one and the same.

With regard to the emotional dynamic of personality and chemistry, Hazel and Gus (and their challenge, I’m afraid) almost perfectly mirror our beloved pair from "Titanic". Jack and Rose were grown and thus more experienced in the ways of the world, but were one to meet them a mere five years earlier, they would be Augustus and Hazel.

A passionate young man with apparently nothing, and actually everything, to lose in pursuit of his dazzling true love, who returns his affections but keeps him at bay lest her actions upend the lives of those she loves, yet who finally succumbs to the truth of him, and the truth of them, and dives in fully in order to wrest all that life has to offer, for as long as it offers it.

"The Fault in Our Stars" is generating buzz as being the “it” romance of the summer, and perhaps of the year… but readers might be well cautioned to manage their expectations.

I myself have not read the book, but in attempting to reconcile several plot peculiarities I consulted a detailed synopsis, and it would appear that while the novel stood strong, several [I guess ostensibly minor] juncture revisions left the script skipping like a rock on a pond on more than one occasion.

It has to do, see, with that aforementioned Bold Promise. The film opens with Hazel’s voiceover discussing the two ways we tell sad stories. The first is to sugarcoat it, in which nothing is so messed up that it can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song. Second there’s the truth, and this story is it. Okay, sounds good!

And it is good, particularly with regard to execution and performance. The film is gorgeous to look at, and both Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort do well; their chemistry wasn’t quite the best I’ve seen (I actually liked them better as siblings in "Divergent"), but individually they both carried the day with aplomb.

The adults amounted to little more than submissive white noise, as adults do in young adult stories, but were strong enough to be worthy of attention when attention was paid, and that’s okay too.

But the bold promise began fading mid-way, as Hazel’s disability begins to be depicted as being as disabling as any who have been bedbound would give a finger to be able to enjoy; and as Gus’ charm and positivity started smacking of glibness; and as a character whose behavior should have offered surprise ended up delivering what landed more as word salad. And at worst, as we sustain the blow of a game-changing revelation, along waft the vocals (uncredited, interestingly enough) of… you guessed it: Peter Gabriel (or his perfect imitator, rendering the distinction moot). At that point I actually thought, “Are you kidding?” and withdrew my affection entirely.

This opinion has actually been a pretty tricky one to articulate, requiring a balance between honest appraisal of the work (with regard to the convenient nobility it brings to its purported realism ) and honest appraisal of self (in not leaning into a cynicism borne of firsthand experience with Peter-Gabriel-free truths). See, if one is going to promise truth, then one must deliver it, and while I have no doubt that those who inspired this story will feel honored, it’s also worth mentioning that there are people who will anticipate their own story being told by extension, but instead find "The Fault in Our Stars" to be the sugarcoated variety at the end of the day.

Happily, "The Fault in Our Stars" pulls it together for a spectacular the third act, bringing us a sequence of conversations and experiences that honor all who have walked this grueling, shadowed path. Whether or not one has experienced the losses borne of cancer per se or of any other deliverer of these cruel blows, the ending rings with acute intensity, and the core that drives John Green’s celebrated novel shines through with an ache not seen since "Terms of Endearment".

Rounded out by a soundtrack that (back in the day, and ironically true again) is worthy of wearing out its grooves, "The Fault in Our Stars" is probably best read after being seen in order to enjoy its true power, but still joins the annals of Great Romance. Just remember it’s young adult fare, and in that capacity it succeeds mightily, even with Peter Gabriel.

Story: An insightful teenager coping with terminal cancer finds unexpected love with a fellow patient.

Genre: Drama, romance

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Lotte Verbeek

Directed by: Josh Boone

MPAA: PG-13

Running time: 125 minutes

Houston release date: June 6, 2014

Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings

Screened June 3rd 2014 at the Edwards Marq*E theater in Houston TX

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