The flaws in The Fault of Our Stars happen early, in the first half of the film. Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) seems too upbeat, while Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of The Imperial Affliction, seems too cruel, his reason for being cruel too cliched. And yet, despite that awkward scene with Van Houten in Amsterdam, the scene right before that encounter is when the movie started to really work on me. In a restaurant in which Gus and Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) are sharing a wonderful meal together, he tells her that he loves her, despite her not wanting to be his girlfriend, as she doesn’t want to hurt him when she dies.
For Hazel has cancer, and Gus is a cancer survivor. Hazel knows that her cancer will one day kill her, while Gus sees every day as a chance to be special, and so to be remembered. He fears oblivion; she’s already living as if it’s here.
The first part of the film deals with Hazel and Gus’s relationship, from their first meeting through their Make-a-Wish meeting with the author of The Imperial Affliction, Hazel’s favorite book. Like The Spectacular Now, the film’s tone and focus changes around the midway point, and what we witness in the second half of the film is darker and deeper than what we saw in the first half. This is all to the good of the audience, but it’s bad news for our tear ducts. Shailene Woodley starred in that film, as well, but the only thing in common with that performance is that she plays a teenager in both movies. Ansel Elgort seems to be one note in the beginning of the film, but by the end the character has had to face a crisis that changes how he looks at the world, making it Hazel’s responsibility to keep him positive, rather than the other way around.
Ultimately, what we end up getting is a film in which the two lead actors shine so brightly that one would have to be as cruel as Van Houten not to empathize with them: not feel their hurts, not laugh at their triumphs, not cry at their losses. There is good supporting work from Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother, and Nat Wolff as Gus’s friend Isaac, but the heart of the film lies with Hazel and Gus. They make the weaker parts of the script work, the ones early on that seem designed to force emotions from us. By the end, these two extraordinary actors are earning every emotion they’re pulling out of us, and they’re pulling out a lot.
The Fault in Our Stars played at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival. It opens today nationwide.