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Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I mentioned this film a lot in my Edge of Tomorrow review so I might as well take a quick look at it. It also happens to be really, really good and is easily this year's biggest cinematic surprise, as far as I'm concerned. I effin' loved this movie - and I don't care how much of a girl that makes me!

Also, I should mention that I have not read the book on which this was based but now I think I might just have to.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a teenage girl whose terminal cancer may be being kept at bay by a miraculous new experimental treatment but she knows it's only a matter of time before her time finally runs out. Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a teenage boy who survived cancer by having his leg amputated but who tries to make the most of his new lease on life. When the two have a chance meeting at a cancer support group, sparks quickly fly and what follows is a tragic, star-crossed love story that not only includes plenty of YOLO sentiments but whose great romantic climax is a passionate kiss in - get this - Anne Frank's attic.

If this isn't enough to make you want to slit your wrists (or at least throw up a little in your mouth) then how about the fact that The Fault in Our Stars is based a mega-selling, teen-romance book and one that wears its "tearjerker" label as a source of great pride? It's like Twilight but with terminal cancer patients taking the place of glittery vampires.

Going in, everything about The Fault in Our Stars looked utterly unbearable and though I've always been significantly quicker to embrace good "chick flicks" than most males (hey, if you can't appreciate the brilliance of When Harry Met Sally, that's your problem, not mine), this one in particular looked set to test my gag reflexes from its very first frame. I mean, honestly, would you just look at that poster!

How the hell then, with all this in mind, did this slice of weepy, teeny-bopping "misery porn" turn into one of my favourite films of the year so far? No, you know what, scratch that: how did this slice of weepy, teeny-bopping "misery porn" turn into one of the best films of the year, period?

The answer, as it turns out, is all in the execution.

Yes, the basic premise of Fault in Our Stars is indeed every bit as ghastly as these sorts of things get but that's probably only because of how such premises have generally been dealt with in the past. There's an old adage that there's no such thing as bad characters, only bad writers and, if The Fault in Our Stars is any indication, the same is clearly true of stories as well. Admittedly, it's probably worth mentioning that even with this caveat in place, the more stone-hearted among us, may well still find the film hard to swallow - a fact that is borne out by the sniffy, cynical critics who couldn't refrain from giving the film an utterly unmerciful thrashing.

They are in the minority, however, and it's all but impossible to imagine anyone with even the smallest sentimental bone in their body not being won over by this genuinely lovely little movie. And it is "little". For all of its blockbusting popularity, it's a very contained, very unassuming little dramedy that actually has far more in common with something like The Perks of Being a Wallflower than Twilight or one of those rubbish made-for-TV weepies.

Our teenage heroes are outsiders by nature and though they're hardly exempt from being smugly annoying and unrepentantly pretentious, they're annoying and pretentious in an authentically adolescent kind of way and in a way that doesn't detract from how incredibly likable they are. And that's the first of the films many secret weapons. These kids are tragic victims of the most horrible diseases (along with our two heroes, Gus' best friend's own cancer is about to rob him entirely of his sight) but they're also real kids who are portrayed with all the strengths and weaknesses that comes with being a run-of-the-mill misunderstood teenager. They screw up, they're naive, they're nowhere near as smart or original as they think they are, but they're also idealistic, big-hearted and passionate. They're victims of their circumstances, yes, but you don't end up caring for them simply because they're victims but because you simply really enjoy spending time with these fully-rounded and sympathetic people.

Much has been made about the fact that Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort played siblings in Divergent and lovers here but - quite aside for the whole "it's called acting" thing - the real story here is that, freed of the constraints of Divergent's incredibly stupid plot, they work incredibly well together. They have great chemistry and they're simply exceptional in their roles here. Elgort is almost preternaturally charming in a role that could so easily have been smug and overbearing, while talk of Woodley being deserving of an Oscar nomination for her role here is entirely justified. She's always been good but she's exquisite here in a role that demands a lot from her.

Along with being a heartfelt romance and a smart examination of love, life and death, The Fault in Our Stars is also very much a coming of age story. The only difference between this and most entries into this most hallowed of genres is that in this coming of age story, the adolescents will never actually get to "come of age". It's a tragic and fascinating dynamic that explores how the usual child/ adult dichotomy of adolescence plays out when adulthood is forever out of reach.    

There have been some complaints, it should be said, that the adult characters are significantly less well-drawn and though there may be some truth to that - but only some - some of the film's most powerful moments come from interactions between the kids and their elders. Hazel's parents often seem too perfect but that's put in context during one of the most moving scenes in the film, as Hazel confronts them about the way their constant attention to her will leave them empty shells when - not if - she dies. And then, of course, there is Willem Dafoe who provides a very cynical and hope-crushing counterpoint to the endless compassion and kindness of Hazel's parents.

With this much smart characterization and genuine intelligence behind them, when the tears eventually do come and the film breaks your heart and uplifts your spirits in equal measure, it doesn't feel like crass emotional manipulation. I mean, it is emotional manipulation - how on earth could it not be - but it doesn't feel like you're being manipulated. This isn't the cynical and unquestionably artificial manipulation of the worst tear-jerkers but the kind that inevitably comes with seeing people you care about come face to face with their own mortality at such a young age. Also, despite my glib reference to "misery porn", The Fault in My Stars actually isn't anything of the sort, as it is every bit as uplifting, as spiritual, as humane as it is incredibly sad.

Oh, and it's also very, very funny.

While the depth of characterization is easily the film's greatest selling point, it's its sense of humour that is the glue that hold all the drama together. It's not simply that the film has some fun sight gags and loads of sharp, witty humour but that it allows us to laugh with these cancer victims who in turn are laughing at their own terminal diseases and their own no less terminal fates. The laughter is sometimes sad, sometimes bitter and sometimes vicious, but it's just as often gleeful. By laughing both with and at life - at its beauty, at its ugliness, at its wonder, at its cruelty, at its unending sense of the ironic - The Fault in Our Stars is genuinely life affirming in a way that so few movies are - especially those that proclaim to be as much.

Incidentally, the infamous kiss at Anne Frank's attic is a particularly powerful illustration of the film's incredible balancing acts between life and death and hope and despair. While we all tend to view Anne Frank's story as an unmitigated tragedy - as we do most Holocaust stories - the Fault in Our Stars instead turns its light on the more defiant, more resilient and, yup, more life-affirming aspects of the true story of a young girl who is forced to confront her own mortality. It's a slightly uncomfortable scene but it's one that fits the themes of the film to a tee.

The only real criticism that can be leveled at the film is that newcomer Josh Boone's direction is somewhat ordinary in the face of the film's extraordinary characters and their extraordinary lives - literary fidelity turns into cinematic conservativeness, in other words - but even this particular argument doesn't hold much water. Sure, the filmmaking is functional rather than artistic, let alone auteuristic, but this exact functionality and basic level of craft ensures that nothing really gets in the way of the story and the raw emotions of its characters.

Also, it's true that the film hardly ever deals with the true horrors of cancer and that it does rely on an entirely fictional miracle drug but, when you get right down to it, The Fault in Our Stars is not really about cancer. It's about life and death, living and dying, loving and losing, childhood and adulthood, humour and despair, spirituality and earthiness, naivety and cynicism - that's it's told through the eyes of a cancer sufferer is almost besides the point.

What's not besides the point though, is that The Fault in Our Stars is as moving, intelligent and life-affirming as any mainstream love story could ever hope to be. It may lack the dazzling artistry of something like The Diving Bell  and the Butterfly but it comes closer than most to reaching that level of humour, emotionalism and joi de vivre - and if you know anything at all about that particular French masterpiece then you know just how high a compliment that comparison is. Sorry haters but it really is that good.

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