June 06, 2014

Movie review: 'The Fault In Our Stars'

By Carl Kozlowski *

There’s been a void in movie theaters in the past 26 years since John Hughes wrote and produced “Some Kind of Wonderful,” his last flick aimed specifically at teenagers. That movie ended a string of six films – including “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Pretty in Pink” – that portrayed teens with a level of respect, intelligence, humor and warmth that was unprecedented in Hollywood.

Since then, teens have kept going to the movies, but aside from rare classics like “Say Anything” and “Clueless,” the movies have abandoned any attempt to portray them in a truthful way. Instead, it seems that every teen in a movie is a vampire or a werewolf inside, or forced to kill other kids in a dystopian future.

While those kinds of scary transformational plotlines might make a good metaphor for teens transforming through puberty and acne, it was largely cold and effects-driven, lacking real heart.  But this weekend, a new movie has come to save the day and remind filmmakers how to make a great teen movie that transcends its target audience to offer a powerful emotional effect to anyone who sees it: “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Based on a massive and critically-acclaimed best seller by John Green, “Fault” follows the story of two Indiana high schoolers, Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort) who fall in love after meeting in a support group for teens with cancer.  Hazel narrates parts of the film, but rather than being self-absorbed navel-gazing, her commentary comes in quick and sharp doses, with the story offering rich perspectives from all of its major characters.

Hazel has grown up fighting the disease, having battled thyroid cancer before it spread into her lungs, leaving her to wear a nasal breathing tube at all times and drag an oxygen tank around with her. She’s a recluse, having earned her GED early before spending her days watching TV and taking online courses at the local community college.

Worried that she needs to socialize, Hazel’s mom (Laura Dern in a terrific performance) forces her to go to the support group, which is held inside an Episcopal church’s social hall. It’s in the support sessions that “Fault” makes it clear that it has a unique point of view on life, death, love and what our time on earth is supposed to mean, shot through with a sharp sense of humor where other movies would merely wallow in tear-jerking moments.

Part of that humor comes from Hazel’s world-weary sarcasm, which she deploys to fill the uncertain void she feels she’s about to fall into at death. But Gus is vibrant and full of life despite having lost a leg to the disease, and the two soon start a deep friendship that deepens into love for him, while she’s afraid to get romantically involved because she doesn’t want to break anyone’s heart when she dies.

The two especially bond over Hazel’s favorite book, a novel by a reclusive one-time-only writer named Peter Von Houten (Willem Dafoe, who’s rarely been stronger) who now lives in Amsterdam. When Gus boldly writes Peter a note asking a series of philosophical questions the book inspired in himself and Hazel, Peter invites them to visit him, setting off a chain of events that consistently prove both deeply moving and unpredictable.

To say more about the plot would be to ruin its impact, which is tremendous. Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber take things even higher than their superb work in last year’s Top Ten-worthy “The Spectacular Now,” and bringing Green’s book to vibrant onscreen life that’s complemented beautifully by a well-chosen collection of indie-pop songs that give “Fault” the feel of the similarly powerful Zach Braff film “Garden State.”

I can’t give enough praise to the writers and to the original novelist Green, who give us refreshingly good kids to root for.  As mentioned, no one’s turning into otherworldly creatures, but they also are not arrogant smartasses with smugly superior attitudes like countless other on-screen teens. It’s long overdue that a film shows that there are still functional families out there, with parents who aren’t cluelessly out of touch and kids who have a respectful and friendly relationship with them.

These kids rarely swear and they don’t smoke, do drugs or sneak alcohol like countless other bad examples Hollywood foists onto American teens. SPOILER ALERT: But there is one major problematic element to the film, as the young couple sneak into Gus’ hotel room after sharing their first kiss and have a lengthy before-and-after sequence in which they spend the night together, with Hazel casting caution and her shirt to the wind while sitting on his lap in bed with her bra on, and then her bare back shown above a carefully placed blanket and her legs sticking out the other side alongside his implied-nude body after they have sex.

The way “Fault” handles teen sex is complicated, for it’s not shown leeringly like so many other movies and it’s clearly tied to their love for each other. But obviously glamorizing teen sex is a dangerous thing in general and a bigger issue for Catholics and other Christians who don’t endorse premarital sex.

On the other hand, these kids have so little time left that they will never have the chance to get married, so it’s hard to judge the movie as harshly as far raunchier teen films. And considering that the film shows kids who attend a support group in an Episcopal church and Gus in particular mentions his belief in God in addition to many positive messages about family, love and death, the bed scene is far outweighed by the positive elements.

Director Josh Boone brings it all together beautifully, guiding audiences to see the beauty of life even at its worst moments and managing to keep a low tension throughout as the audience experiences the same disassociation as its lead characters, wondering and worrying if any given day shown could be their last, even as they press bravely forward. It’s a lesson we all can share.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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