Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars follows young cancer patients Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) from their initial meeting at a support group to a romantic, all-expenses-paid trip (referred to sarcastically by Hazel as a “cancer perk”) to Amsterdam, where they hope to meet their favorite author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). While neither the trip, their prognoses, nor their visit with Van Houten go exactly as they had imagined, what Hazel’s oncologist refers to as a cancer “journey” ends up symbolizing the emotional ups and downs of both adolescence and living with a serious illness.
The Fault in Our Stars flirts at times with being just a bit too precious, particularly when it comes to Augustus. While there is nothing wrong with Elgort’s performance (and much of his dialogue is taken verbatim from the source material), the character’s grandiose manner and penchant for metaphors aren’t entirely believable for an 18-year-old boy. The same could be said of Hazel’s stoic acceptance of the thyroid cancer that will, in all likelihood, be the cause of her death. However, as their relationship grows, it becomes increasingly apparent that Gus’ optimism and Hazel’s cynicism are different manifestations of the same protective armor.
Woodley’s portrayal of Hazel brings with it an understated poignancy. She is not an impossibly beautiful saint suffering in glamorous agony; she is a smart young woman who has come to terms with her own mortality as best as she can manage. One of the most unique elements of The Fault in Our Stars is that it occurs in a place of acceptance rather than acute grief. Augustus and Hazel speak readily about their eulogies and their philosophies regarding the existence of an afterlife, but they do so with a palpable layer of detachment that both actors should be proud of harnessing so well.
For all of the film’s unapologetically sweeping gestures and metaphors, its strength comes from its subtlety and attention to detail. The side effects of cancer are in every shot, whether in the form of an oxygen tank, breathing apparatus, prosthetic limb, chemotherapy bag, or the unrelenting anxiety on the faces of Hazel and Gus’ respective families. Hazel’s parents, played expertly by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, are on their own search for meaning when it comes to the tragedy of having a terminally ill child. Since the parents and children don’t talk about this topic together, it’s clear that Hazel’s attendance in a cancer-support group and her doctor’s references to the disease as a “journey” are necessary for the adults to stay sane and positive.
Similarly, it is the pithiness of Hazel’s often harsh perception of reality that gives the film its weight and offers the perfect counterpoint to Gus’ verbosity. While the self-admitted “soliloquies” of Augustus Waters bring the wit, Hazel’s heartfelt yet pragmatic conclusions bare the movie’s soul. Breathing difficulties and the process of dying itself, according to Hazel, simply “suck.” This unflinchingly realistic perspective is as constant a presence in the film as the cancer itself, giving the story a tone more bittersweet than saccharine—and it’s this element, surprisingly enough, that makes the tears flow and forces the audience to come to their own conclusions about what constitutes a life lived to its fullest.