Early in The Fault in Our Stars, we meet Patrick, the leader of a support group for teenage cancer patients. He wails over acoustic guitar, talks in corny religious phrases, and is generally offensive to our narrator, the sardonic cancer sufferer Hazel Grace Lancaster. Patrick (played with oafish conviction by Mike Birbiglia) survived an orchiectomy a while back, and has since been making a living "by exploiting his cancertastic past,” Hazel tells us.
In the John Green novel from which Josh Boone’s film is adapted, Hazel dismissively summarizes an hour at Patrick’s group therapy: “Fights were recounted, battles won amid wars sure to be lost; hope was clung to; families were both celebrated and denounced; it was agreed that friends just didn’t get it; tears were shed; comfort proffered.”
The clear message is that Hazel and The Fault in Our Stars are well aware of cancer-fighting clichés as clichés. This is in large part what made Green’s tale about young-adult love and illness so distinct: At every turn, its characters reject the notion the repackaging of real human pain into flat, inspirational narratives, even as the novel itself manages to tell a moving and, yes, inspirational narrative.
The movie keeps Hazel’s no-BS attitude intact, as well as that of her love interest, Augustus Waters, and their friend Isaac. They banter about getting “cancer perks,” talk about their deaths in terms of “when” not “if,” and make fun of their own ailments—“my body is basically made out of cancer,” one of them cheerfully boasts. This precociousness comes off as a bit like an act, because it is: They’ve created weird, erudite, unflappable personas to deal with the fact that cancer, and the way people treat cancer, tries to reduce them into just another sad sick kid. But Hazel & co. are also fully human, protective of one another and concerned about the effect their illnesses have on their friends and family.
Boone’s put together a good-looking, well-acted affair. With her raspy voice and shy demeanor, Shailene Woodley’s Hazel is a variant on the outwardly reserved but inwardly vibrant teenager the actress previously played so well in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. Ansel Elgort nails Augustus Waters's smirking, age-specific confidence: Gus, who as “a metaphor” habitually puts a cigarette between his teeth without smoking it, is meant to be the kind of self-impressed teenage boy who’s only charming because he knows he’s ridiculous. Laura Dern and Sam Trammel convince as parents who play along with their daughter’s blasé affect as much as is possible for two people with a personal apocalypse on the horizon. And Nat Wolff is hilarious as the mopey, blinded Isaac; he has some good lines, but his best scene is one where he’s entirely unintelligible.
Still, the movie’s a betrayal. It goes to almost outrageous lengths to manipulate the audience—which is exactly the opposite of what the characters, and the story, purports to do.
The constantly intruding soundtrack of strummy indie ballads alone is an offense. I like M83, but the entire point of their records are to show just how easily music can bottle the feeling of an emotional movie climax. So it feels almost like cheating when Boone deploys one of their songs twice, turning this specific and willfully quirky story into a generic, cathartic singalong.
The camerawork and editing are similarly cloying. When one character faces a medical setback in the book, it’s told in one matter-of-fact paragraph about wanting to lose consciousness; here’s, it’s depicted with slow-mo, violins, and soft focus. These techniques aren’t just clichés—they’re clichés about clichés, like the needlework slogans that Gus’s parents post on their walls.
To be sure, Green's book manipulates as well, carefully crafted so that the tragedy implied in the "cancertastic" premise hits especially hard. And as Ruth Graham at Slate points out in her controversial takedown of YA fiction, it's not like Green forgoes easy pleasures: "This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like 'I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things' to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged."
But the book's moments of uplift and of heartbreak arise out of how genuinely affecting the plot and the characters are, not from slathered-on, artificial signifiers of significance. It's telling that when Hazel's feeling especially sad, she's able to calmly dissects why: It's in part because of what she's gone through and what it means, and in part because of the dreary weather and the fact that she's sitting there staring at an empty swing set.
With his music and direction, though, Boone clutters the film with elements akin to that meaningless, portentous swing set—cinematic cue cards, telling you when you're supposed to laugh and supposed to cry. In doing so, he seems to reject the idea that the story is compelling enough on its own. And he undermines the characters’ attempts to find solace without schmaltz. Patrick might enjoy what’s on screen. Hazel, however, would hate it.