Saturday, June 7, 2014

Love, Cancer Style: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

They’re young. They’re in love. They have cancer. She meets him in a support group for kids with terminal illnesses. She needs an oxygen tank to breathe. He has an artificial leg. They’re in remission, but for God only knows how long. She’s only alive because of an experimental treatment. No one knows if and when it’ll stop working. He’s only alive because he gave up part of his leg. They hit it off right away. Their chemistry is immediate, obvious, and overwhelming. They feel comfortable together. Maybe it’s because for them love means never having to say you have cancer.

That’s the basic premise of The Fault in Our Stars, a teen romance wrapped tightly around a disease-of-the-week weepy. What makes it work is the strength of the performances, which are clear-eyed and emphatic, and the writing, which is sappy and sentimental, but never loses a sense of humor and perspective. This isn’t a blinkered story of doomed true love. It’s a story about two sick kids who make a connection in what just might be their final days. Rather than letting this possibility weigh the film down, it’s simply accepted as a reality. They’ve been living with their diagnoses for years now. They’re used to it.

The girl, Hazel, is our entry point into the story. Played by Shailene Woodley, she’s a bookish, contemplative girl who appreciates the time she’s given, while wondering why she can’t have the freedom to be a little more of a normal teen. She certainly doesn’t want to go to the support group in the bottom of a church basement, where the sweet man with testicular cancer (Mike Birbiglia) makes everyone listen to his acoustic guitar playing. She goes anyway, and meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort). They can’t keep their eyes off of each other. Afterwards, they hang out. Soon, they text back and forth. It’s a typical modern teen flirtation sliding easily into romance. If it weren’t for the cancer, it’d almost not be worth telling. The disease gives their flirtation underlying, unspoken, urgency.

Woodley and Elgort’s performances are appealing and comfortable. Woodley makes even the corniest narration sound like nothing more than what a reasonably intelligent teenager might be thinking. She has an open face and wet eyes that communicate a sadness and wonder, convincing as a person who has been sick since she was a child, and is tentatively forging a new relationship despite her worry about hurting one more person with her death. Elgort’s hugely charming, playing the type of cocky that can only be compensating for fear. And yet he seems totally at ease. He has to be the dreamiest, most Tiger Beat-ready cancer patient I’ve ever seen, confident and glowing with a love of life. They look good together, banter well, and are easy to root for.

The supporting cast is filled with terrific actors as parents and fellow support group members. Laura Dern is especially good in a role of maternal warmth and care as a woman for whom caring for a terminal child has become second nature. She has a devastating flashback scene, weeping while trying to comfort her hospitalized daughter, that’s so good it’s repeated twice. Nat Wolff, who between this and Palo Alto is cornering the market on troubled-best-friend teen roles, plays a kid with cancer of the eyes, nervously awaiting surgery that’ll leave him blind. That he’s good comedic relief should tell you something about the movie’s approach. It’s not morose or death-obsessed. It’s about people living their lives one day at a time complete with tiny triumphs, interesting anecdotes, sad setbacks, and funny jokes.

There’s nothing visually interesting about the movie. It’s simply lit and full of medium and close-up two shots, what we’d more easily call TV-like before TV went and got a smidge more cinematic at its upper edge. Director Josh Boone gets fine performances out of his cast and keeps the style merely functional, stepping out of the material’s way. It’s based on a popular novel by John Green, who wrote a well-oiled melodrama machine. I mean that in a good way. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (of (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) retain its most appealing elements, faithfully flavoring a low-key and sympathetic story about families living with a sick child with fantasy romance elements. The main characters have an idealized perfect teen love that’s all the more intense for the cold reality of cancer potentially growing within them.

The movie has a brisk pace, humanizing detail, and a good-humored snap to the dialogue. It hits metaphors a little too hard – a scene drawing a parallel to Anne Frank is misjudged – but, in its simple scenes of characters interacting, it is often deeply felt. It’s gooey, sappy at times, intent on wringing a tear or two out of the audience. But it’s warm, appealing, and never loses sight of the characters, balancing their youthful vitality and the deadly stakes of their conditions. Most importantly, they’re rarely reduced to their types. They’re presented as people who laugh, dream, plan, hope, think, and love. They try not to let their disease define them. That the movie doesn’t either is to its credit. And that’s what makes this glossy, bright, manipulative Hollywood drama an engaging entertainment that can hit authentic, tearful notes.

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