Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is nineteen and coping with a cancer that has been part of her ever since she was a child, held at bay by an experimental drug. An oxygen tank is her constant companion. To pacify her parents Hazel reluctantly attends a support group which is where she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort) who lost a leg to cancer but not his zest for life. Sharing an acerbic wit and disdain for the conventional, they find solace in each other and fall deeply in love. When Hazel introduces Augustus to an inspirational novel written by Peter Van Houten, he ends up writing a fan e-mail to the reclusive author. This prompts an invitation to visit him in Amsterdam. Against doctors' advice but with the support of her mother (Laura Dern), Hazel joins Augustus on an emotional journey.
Few things are more insufferable than a 'cancer is cute' movie. The Fault in Our Stars is not one of those. Hollywood has a long tradition of lachrymose love stories involving terminal illness, some done well as in the Greta Garbo classic Camille (1936) though more often shamelessly saccharine and insincere. Love Story (1970) we're looking at you. Author John Green, on whose novel this film is based, is quoted as saying he resisted handing the rights over to filmmakers at first precisely because "Hollywood sucks at making unsentimental movies about illness." The film opens with a monologue addressing the established tradition of sugar-coating sad stories. "I love those stories as much as the next girl", admits Hazel. "But those aren't the truth. This is the truth. Sorry." Yet for all its unflinching honesty about the simple unfairness of cancer, what follows remains a recognisably old-fashioned weepie not something confrontational or subversive. Yet well-crafted weepies have value too. There is a fine line between contrived sentimentality and an honest emotional response to a beautifully told story. And make no mistake, The Fault in Our Stars is a beautifully told story.
At first it is apparent why Green's sparky, self-aware yet sensitive young heroes struck a chord with a generation that prefers to filter honest emotion through irony, text messages, pop culture references and a hipster soundtrack. Yet gradually and with great skill director Josh Boone and scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber syphon all that away and get down to weaving an affecting story about life, death and love. On one level the plot shoots down religion and art as the answer to life's mysteries. Yet for all its attempt to gaze unflinchingly into the abyss the film retains a certain fairytale quality. Heck, the leads are two clean-cut, sweet-natured virgins. The fairytale tone extends to a genuinely lovely travelogue romance wherein Hazel and Augustus enjoy the sights in Amsterdam. But the film throws the first of several poison apples into the mix in the form of Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) who turns out to be far less than the inspirational figure Hazel imagined him to be and more a pontificating, nihilistic, pseudo-intellectual asshole.
From this point the film expands in scope beyond the familiar, albeit more accomplished than most, disease-of-the-week melodrama to ask a more ambitious question. Namely, if life is inherently futile then why go on living? As Augustus observes, life must end, even the Earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun yet we still fall in love, still forge emotional connections because those are the very things define us as human. Or indeed what defines life as living. This idea is beautifully expressed in a haunting sequence where Hazel painfully ascends the many steps leading to the secret annexe at Anne Frank's house. It becomes a metaphor for Hazel's battle for hope interspersed with moving quotes from Anne Frank's diary. The film further outclasses the shallowness of Love Story through refusing to shy away from the indignity of cancer. We see the debilitating effect cancer has upon the human spirit as the protagonists grow bitter, angry and grapple with conflicting emotions. Lead actors Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, last seen as brother and sister in the same year's Divergent, share terrific chemistry and are wholly engaging. When the film starts tugging those heartstrings it works. Big time. Yet there is a sincerity to both performances and story that bolsters its transcendent final message.