Editor’s note: Our “Double Exposure” reviews pit two or more critics against one another on the same film to hash out their differences in opinion. Agree with what we have to say or want to offer your own take? Leave it in the comments below.
Josef Rodriguez: John Green’s best-selling novel, “The Fault in Our Stars,” has become a cultural landmark since its initial publication in 2012. Green, who is already one of the most popular Young Adult novelists working today, found new levels of mainstream success with his story of two terminal teenagers who find love where they least expect it. Both the novel and its adaptation tell the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a 17-year old girl who has been fighting cancer for almost five years. With a daily routine that consists of little more than taking medication, watching reality TV, and re-reading the fictional novel “An Imperial Affliction” by Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), Hazel has established a routine that has allowed her to slip into a depression.
When her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) force her to go to a support group for teens with cancer, she finds it hard to open up and interact with the other kids. All of that changes when she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an 18-year old survivor who has been in remission for the past year and a half at the expense of his right leg. The two form an instant connection; picnics in the park, all-nighter phone conversations, and the countless other prerequisites to a successful teenage relationship. After convincing him to read Van Houten’s book, Augustus contacts the Make-A-Wish Foundation to fly him and Hazel to Amsterdam with the hopes that they can get some answers about the novel’s unorthodox ending from its reclusive author. Through all of this, Hazel and Augustus fall madly in love despite the inevitable: Hazel is probably going to die.
Justin Giglio: When I read John Green’s novel, “The Fault in Our Stars” a year ago, certain aspects of the book seemed impossible to adapt into a feature film. The novel is told from the first-person perspective of Hazel, a complicated character to say the least, who reveals a lot about herself through the narration. My fear was that an over-abundance of narration would distract from other important aspects of the film or that the complete omission of narration would remove many of the tiny details that made her such an interesting character to begin with. Director Josh Boone toed that line elegantly and trusted in Shailene Woodley’s performance enough for the character to come through in full form.
Josef: [Boone] takes a concept that could have easily been offensive and irritating on-screen – especially a third act where almost everyone is constantly crying – and turns it into one of the most compulsively watchable and accomplished teen films in recent memory. Instead of focusing on what it’s like to be a teen with cancer, Boone decides to tell the story of what it means to be a teenager in 2014, and he succeeds with flying colors. Where most teen dramas fail miserably in their attempts to capture the fleeting and memorable moments of youth, “The Fault in Our Stars” succeeds in ways I didn’t even know were possible. What it loses in nuance, it makes up for with a lust for life and beauty that nearly leaps from the screen.
I won’t say that Ansel Elgort is a great actor, and his performance in last year’s “Carrie” proved how flat he can be in the wrong hands, but he is undeniably one of the most charming young men in Hollywood today, and my initial trepidations about him as Gus vanished the moment he entered the frame. His chemistry with Shailene Woodley, a far more accomplished actor who co-starred alongside Elsort in this year’s “Divergent,” hits the perfect balance of sweet and honest in a performance that can only be called miraculously real. In many ways, Elsort is reminiscent of James Dean; not every line is delivered the way it should be and a lot of it can be written off as amateurish and trite, but there’s no denying that Elsort gives it his all, and the emotional nakedness is nothing less than admirable.
Zack Miller: I read over at Indiewire that Josh Boone pitched the film as a “Titanic”-type story, with cancer being the inevitable iceberg that is lurking unnoticed in the ocean, waiting for the story to reach it and be thrown into turmoil. That comparison brought another to my mind: Ansel Elgort is playing the DiCaprio role, trying to overcome the tepid disinterest of the heroine through sheer charisma. The only problem is that Elgort can’t quite take it to Leo levels and, particularly in the first half of the film, his performance comes off as more smarm than charm.
Josef: Willem Dafoe, who cameos as Hazel’s literary idol Peter Van Houten, gives the best performance in the entire film as a hopeless, lonely drunk who completely subverts Hazel’s expectations in the worst way possible. Though he’s only given a couple minutes of screentime, Dafoe does wonders with the material he has, adding an even deeper layer of tragedy than the one present in the novel. His first encounter with Hazel is a heartbreaking, spine-tingling dose of honesty drowned in an infinite stream of scotch and years of deep-seated hurt.
Zack: I totally agree with your praise for Dafoe. He’s one of the greatest character actors right now, and he has such a spectacular range. He plays villains especially well, from cartoonish, bad-to-the-bone outcasts (think of his work with Wes Anderson) to unbridled, chaotic evil like the Green Goblin. You mentioned a deeper layer of tragedy, and a major triumph of this role is the pathos that he’s able to instill: Van Houten is simmering with an almost impotent, vitriolic cynicism, and it plays beautifully off of these two composed, optimistic teenagers who make him look quite childish by comparison. Their first meeting sets up that great coup-de-grace after the funeral where he approaches Hazel in the car and she totally shuts him down, which is a brilliant moment of development for her character that owes as much to Dafoe’s performance as it does to Woodley’s.
Justin: For a film filled with such despair, it can be pretty hilarious. Both Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort have so much charisma and bounce off each other so wonderfully, even in moments of absolute sadness, they can get a laugh out of an audience. There’s something disarming and genuine about characters making light of their situations that makes them all the more relatable.
Zack: The relationship between Hazel and Gus didn’t grab me, and no amount of voiceover from Woodley could change that. Perhaps it’s better developed in the book, but on screen it came across as unnaturally quick – something which the narration tries to wave away with the line about it happening “slowly, and then all at once.” Much more compelling and sympathetic, in my opinion, was Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. She was able to capture an urgency – a believably thin veneer of insistent positivity – that was infinitely more heartbreaking and human to me than the “star-crossed” teenage love.
Josef: Laura Dern is criminally underused despite giving an absolutely phenomenal performance.
Justin: I think it would have been easy to sugar-coat John Green’s novel and cut out some of the devastating moments like the infamous car scene. It’s tragic and changes the audience’s perception of a character who throughout the film seems fearless. It’s not sappy, it’s honest, and Boone’s direction captures the same honesty John Green managed to capture in his book.
Zack: I’m glad you brought up the car scene, because it is one of few exceptions to the main problem I had with the film. Much of a point has been made – by fans, critics, and even the opening voiceover – about how the story doesn’t gloss over or glamorize the harsh realities at hand, but I didn’t find any of it nearly as hard-hitting as it professed to be. I found that the script was constantly throwing in superficial reminders that, yes, these kids are actually sick, without which there would have been no indication of the direness of their situation. Aside from seeing Gus break down at the gas station or Hazel’s ever-trailing oxygen tank, when did either of the leads physically appear to be afflicted by a terminal illness? Instead, we get moments like the juxtaposition of Anne Frank’s disembodied voice recounting her struggles as Hazel climbs several flights of stairs. Perhaps it worked better in the book with internal dialogue backing it up; in a visual medium I just didn’t feel any real stakes.
Justin: Maybe I felt more of the despair having read the book. That said, the oxygen tank and the tubes that allow her to breathe are actually an interesting visual that was much less important in the book. Sure, aside from Hazel’s lungs filling with water right before her trip to Amsterdam and the car scene. There isn’t much literal suffering that the characters go through. The interesting thing, and the biggest reminder of their affliction, is the moment in the hotel room as Hazel is removing her clothes. For a moment, the audience can see her face without the tubes, and there’s a kind of relief for her and for Gus, as if they can at least pretend to be in a normal relationship for a moment. Then, after a moment, she needs to plug them back into her nose to be able to breathe. Gus reveals his insecurities about his leg and Hazel comforts him. It’s an unfortunate reminder that there is nothing normal about their relationship or their individual lives.
Josef: In its simplest form, “The Fault in Our Stars” is the story of two young people who are coping with the inevitability of their premature deaths as best they can. Hazel does so through the power of knowledge, the ultimate goal being that she can learn to accept her fate. Gus, on the other hand, deals only in heroics, determined to make his mark on the world with the limited number of days he has left. But what both characters learn, and what the film conveys with unbelievable grace, is the invaluable lesson that life doesn’t always acknowledge these plans as much as we hope it will. And the key to life – the secret that every painter, writer, philosopher, dancer, doctor, lawyer, and human being wishes to uncover – is to live life not denying ourselves the beauty that surrounds us constantly. “The Fault in Our Stars” offers no easy answers to life’s hardest questions, but it does let us know that we are never alone, no matter how infinite the sky looks.