Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is a seventeen-year-old girl who has spent all her teenage years with cancer; although an experimental treatment has prolonged her life, she has no idea how long she has left. She is obsessed with a novel on the subject of cancer, particularly with its ambiguous ending – nobody, except for the author Van Houten, knows exactly what happens to the main characters.
At the wishes of her parents Hazel joins a support group. There, she falls in love with Gus (Ansel Elgort), an eighteen-year-old who survived cancer at the cost of his leg. After reading Hazel’s favourite novel, Gus helps to arrange a meeting between his girlfriend and her hero Van Houten in Amsterdam so that she can finally get closure on the fictional story – entirely against the advice of her doctors.
The above synopsis perhaps makes The Fault in Our Stars sound a more interesting film than it actually is. The story of Hazel’s meeting with Van Houten – a narrative which touches on such potentially rewarding topics as the role played by fiction in the shaping of real lives – ends up reduced to a B-plot. The A-plot is the rather less nuanced tale of the romance between Hazel and Gus.
Anybody familiar with the conventions of American teen romance films will find themselves on well-worn ground here. Hazel is a sensitive, good-natured girl who is trying to find her place in the world; Gus is a brash, jockish boy with such typically laddish interests as video games and zombies, but who is a sweetie deep down. After a few mild odd-couple conflicts, the two find that they complete each other. “I remind a lot of people of a lot of people”, says Hazel at one point, and it is hard to disagree.
One of the film’s recurring settings is the waiting room of a hospital. This is kept appropriately clean and well-ordered, but also features primary-coloured walls and a few simple paintings for decoration. This setting seems to sum up The Fault in Our Stars as a whole: it creates a generally cheerful atmosphere which is maintained with clinical neatness.
What separates the film from its genre bedfellows is its theme of terminal illness. The traditional coming-of-age story relies on the assumption that its protagonists have their entire lives ahead of them, but there is no such guarantee for Hazel and her support group: the emphasis is instead shifted to the characters enjoying their time on earth while they are still here. When the comic relief character, Isaac, goes blind during the course of the film, we are reminded that the futures of our young protagonists are never certain.
Another welcome element comes when the protagonists reach Amsterdam and finally meet Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Going into too much detail about this character’s portrayal would give away one of the few plot twists in the film; suffice to say that he seems to come from a different world to Hazel and Gus altogether. The stock teen romance elements of the film take on a new aspect once this character has arrived to throw them into relief.
Relative newcomer Josh Boone plays things safe with his directorial approach. He occasionally adds a fetching visual flourish, such as the way that the characters’ text messages appear in the air as cartoon speech balloons – not an entirely original idea, but one that helps to liven things up.
It is easy to be cynical about a film like The Fault in Our Stars. It is a film set in a very familiar teenage milieu, relying on a very familiar indie-folk soundtrack to drive its emotional scenes, and populated with a cast of somewhat inarticulate characters. But at the same time, there is no real need to be cynical about it.
Whatever its failings, The Fault in Our Stars is an honest, well-intentioned film which nudges its target audience of adolescents towards asking questions about the world and considering their place in the order of things. Some of its appeal may be lost on those of us outside its target audience, but there is always a place for teen films that mix some thought-provoking subject matter in with the froth.