Thursday 17 July 2014

Dying young: "The Fault in Our Stars"

The Fault in Our Stars, a.k.a. the 21st century's very own Love Story, is a tragic romance between a pretty yet pretty normal girl and a cocky yet virginal boy. There's a morbid twist: young Gus (Ansel Elgort) has already lost a leg to a cancer now in remission, while his opposite number Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is terminal, and obliged to cart an oxygen tank around with her wherever she goes. Josh Boone's film - adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from John Green's YA bestseller, and a significant commercial success either side of the Atlantic in a summer hardly heaving with them - is at its strongest early on, watching these two get close, when it displays a fond attentiveness to adolescent courtship rituals: it gets the awkwardness of sensitive teenagers around parents - their own, and other people's - and what it might feel like when someone you're really into texts you back after an ominous spell of radio silence. (The feeling is surely only intensified in the case of Hazel Grace, acutely conscious of how she might be running out of time to reply.)

My problem with the Fault phenomenon may have nothing to do with Boone or his screenwriters; it may well have been inscribed at the point of authorship. Rather than maintain its touching faith in this inchoate relationship, loaded as it is with joys and pitfalls enough, the narrative instead contrives to send these kids on a romantic adventure to Amsterdam, where Gus and Hazel Grace are to search for a reclusive author whom the latter claims is "the only person who knows what it is to be dying without actually dying", even though his so-called masterpiece includes a character referred to, without apparent irony, as "Sisyphus the hamster". I mean, it sounds terrible, but then that's kids these days, so brainwashed by marketing men they've been set to claiming the utterly conformist likes of The Hunger Games as a new Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In the film, this last-gasp hiatus manifests itself as a patently false turn: "We don't have the money," claims Hazel Grace's mom (Laura Dern), whose bright, spacious home - the kind only a studio adaptation of a bestselling novel might furnish its characters with - suggests she could probably buy Amsterdam and have it flown over express. In the end, it's down to Gus's folks - barely defined here, except as a makeshift Make-a-Wish Foundation - to stump up the funds, and after some debate over the level of oedema in Hazel Grace's lungs, away we go: into hotels and restaurants passing viscounts are possibly shooed away from, wearing clothes you and I most likely couldn't afford even if we sold Hazel Grace's house and pooled our resources. 

The consoling fantasy that follows wouldn't stick in the craw quite so much if The Fault in Our Stars hadn't pointedly opened with Hazel Grace railing against the tendency of glossy Hollywood movies to dress up the grim experience of death; as it is, this all-expenses-paid excursion just looks like a betrayal of everything this story briefly stood for. Its narcissism peaks in a sequence where our leads follow the Justin Bieber trail in visiting Anne Frank's house: rather than using this stopover to set the characters' suffering in some wider historical context, Boone insists on making it all about the wheezing Hazel Grace's attempt to climb the house's many stairs (damn you Otto Frank: why no Stannah?), and rewards her with a round of applause from the unexpectedly beaming tourists gathered in the attic when she and Gus start snogging. (The Bieber connection is weirdly underlined in a later sequence that sees the lovers joining forces with a just-dumped pal (Nat Wolff) to egg the house of the latter's ex: an instance of criminal damage we're meant to find stirring.)

The film has a major ally in Woodley's big eyes, and Boone recognises as such by opening and closing with them framed in screenfilling close-up. Through them, we get glimpses of the young woman excited at the new possibilities Gus puts before her, and terrified that it cannot last; she makes the final round of speechmaking moving in spite of the sickly candyfloss forced down our throats elsewhere. Still, that same sensitivity was far better deployed in last year's The Spectacular Now (again written by Neustadter and Weber), a more personal teen romance that - some ten months after its US release, and nine after playing the London Film Festival to deservedly glowing reviews - is still, inexplicably, sitting on a shelf at Disney's UK HQ and awaiting a theatrical release. The Fault in Our Stars deserves some of its success - it is a story about humans, rather than robots, vampires or werewolves, which makes it something of a rarity in the current marketplace - but it should pain us to know there's a truer story out there, and if Boone's film has any long-term value, it will be in bringing this promising performer's previous triumph to the wider audience it merits.

The Fault in Our Stars is in cinemas nationwide.

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