Last year, we teamed up to write “What Makes a Good YA Love Story?”, and much of our answer to that question was based on the epically beloved, critically acclaimed 2012 novel, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. What we both loved so much about this damn-near perfect teen love story is that, though Hazel and Augustus are dying of cancer, their connection is life-affirming. Hazel and Gus are genuine, three-dimensional, intricate, and irresistibly quirky characters, and we couldn’t wait to see them come alive on the screen. As the release of the film adaptation (Fox, June 2014; PG-13) rolled around, we jumped at the chance to see it, reflect on it, and review it together.
Naturally, not just any showing would do, so we attended “The Night Before Our Stars,” on Thursday, June 5th, a screening of the movie before its opening the next day. Attendees received charm bracelets and posters, and after the movie, viewed live musical performances and a Q&A with director Josh Boone; producer Wyck Godfrey; John Green; and actors Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Nat Wolff. Our theater was packed with teens, some even sporting “Okay? Okay.” T-shirts. This was a committed crowd of fans.
And they were not disappointed. The movie is excellent. It brings the spirit of the book to life, even as it necessarily simplifies some of the material to fit into two hours. As John Green, who was heavily involved in production, mentioned in the live interview, the movie doesn’t “Hollywoodize” the story — something Hazel would have hated. It’s sensitive, teen-oriented, sweet — and, of course, you’re probably going to cry, so remember to bring tissues. (Kleenex even tweeted: “Going to see “The Fault in Our Stars”? You may want to bring a Kleenex® Slim Pack along…”)
The remarkable thing about TFiOS is how perfectly it reflects the lives of today’s teens. Hazel and Augustus type on their MacBook Airs, use Gmail, and text on their iPhones. (A neat feature of the movie is the way texts appear on the screen in literal bubbles, “popping” once the viewer has read them.) In one scene, Hazel is waiting to hear back from Gus, and, as any teen with a crush would do, she keeps an eagle eye on her phone; when she finally hears from him while eating dinner, she’s hopelessly giggling and texting while her baffled parents look on. Both teen characters also looked the part: when they first (literally) bump into each other at a cancer support group meeting, Hazel sports Converse sneakers, a T-shirt, and sweatpants; Gus, a leather jacket and ultra-cool retro-looking Nikes (untied).
The chemistry between Hazel and Gus, too, is completely believable. From that first encounter before cancer support group to their first kiss in Amsterdam’s Anne Frank Museum, their connection is electric. Later, the bedroom scene, potentially tricky for a PG-13 audience, is awkward, playful, and sweet: Gus is vulnerable about his missing leg; Hazel’s T-shirt gets stuck on her cannula.
This is a movie, after all, so it’s no surprise that there’s more romanticizing than in Green’s book, mainly the stars’ healthy glow and fresh-faced complexions for most of the film. But Woodley and Elgort are heartthrobs, and they are both adorable here, even with Hazel’s cannula and Gus’s prosthetic leg. Their performances are also strong: Shailene Woodley invested herself emotionally in playing Hazel, and it shows. She got Hazel’s intelligence, cynicism, and sarcasm down, but also her humanity and compassion. And she’s a beautiful incarnation — again, perhaps an idealized one, but the book’s fans won’t be disappointed with how Woodley illustrates its heroine. Meanwhile, Elgort connects with Gus’s confidence and swagger — our audience literally squealed at the first close-up shot of his face.
Thanks to a cast that seems to have gotten very close to Green’s story and its characters, performances are strong across the board. Laura Dern’s portrayal of concerned mom Mrs. Lancaster is masterful; there’s a moment where Hazel calls for her and she materializes comically fast, out of breath and soaking wet in a towel, panic written across her face. And with his overgrown facial hair, bad teeth, and almost tangible whiskey breath, Willem Dafoe’s handling of Hazel’s author idol Peter Van Houten impressed us perhaps the most for the way he oozes nastiness, physically and emotionally.
Once the movie was over, and everyone in the theater was in a puddle of tears, singer and pianist Birdy did a live performance of “Not About Angels” from the movie (which made Woodley cry). Then, host Alton Brown took questions from people in the auditorium in Georgia, as well as from Twitter. From the cast and filmmakers’ answers, we learned that director Josh Boone was very instrumental in compiling the soundtrack, which he strived to make “tonally right” (it so, so was), and that during the hilarious scene of Hazel and Gus helping by-that-time blind Isaac pelt eggs at his ex’s house, one throw was too perfect, and landed inside the home on loan for the shoot. We even saw John Green’s deleted cameo appearance as the father of the girl who asks Hazel about her cannula in the airport (he should stick to his day job). Most importantly, Green expressed his gratitude to everyone for “making a movie that’s so sensitive to the book.” We couldn’t agree more.