I still remember Lisa.
She took my virginity when I was a freshman in college and wondering if anyone would ever really care to do so, but the truth is she also took away the fear that I had of a body that had spent the majority of my life betraying me.
I also remember Shelley.
I remember how she spent one entire night doing nothing but kissing my scars, every last one of them, and constantly reminding me that while my scars were part of me they did not define me.
Then, there was Kelly.
She would fly back and forth from Cape Cod to my Indiana home because, and I found this unbelievable, I was actually worth it.
There were others, some friends and some lovers. There were many not so pleasant memories to go along with those cherished experiences I hold deep within my psyche'. For the most part, I have lived a life surrounded by friends and lovers and friendly lovers and not so friendly lovers who didn't look at me and see my curved spine or amputated limbs or the ways in which I so often struggle.
They saw me and didn't shout to the mountaintops some unbelievably bullshit platitudes, but at least for a few moments in my life they loved me and they said I was okay.
In The Fault in Our Stars, I saw much of myself in both Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort), or Gus, two young adults who've grown up to be far beyond their years because sometimes life unapologetically throws enough shit your direction that you pretty much have no choice but to either grow up or give up. Based upon a bestselling young adult novel by Indianapolis author John Green, The Fault in Our Stars is Summer 2014's indie gem, I'm calling it now, because it's a film that both remains wondrously faithful to Green's novel and yet manages to illuminate the novel in even more exciting ways.
I find myself not wanting to build up The Fault in Our Stars too much, because it's not the kind of film that you really build up in that "You've just got to see it" kind of way. All I can truly share, beyond an honest critical perspective, is my own personal response to the film and how I find myself still thinking about it and feeling it and remembering it over 24 hours after my first, but not last, viewing of the film. I can tell you, without hesitation, that these were characters that I cared about and enjoyed and felt and would enjoy getting to know if they were real people living in my real life.
The story may sound like any other number of similarly themed films, young adult or not, but rest assured that director Josh Boone (Stuck in Love) gets it right where so many others have gone wrong. John Green himself has gone on record praising the film extensively, a response he admits he truly didn't expect after having talked to other authors about the experience of having one's novel adapted for film.
While there is an abundance of credit to go around, the simple truth is that The Fault in Our Stars lives and breathes on the strength of Shailene Woodley's warm, genuine, and convicted performance as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year-old who has thus far managed to survive stage IV thyroid cancer but has been left for the wear after it spread to the lungs and left her stuck on oxygen 24/7. I had feared that The Fault in Our Stars would go the way of far too many young adult rom-coms, think pretty much anything with the name Nicholas Sparks attached, but I'm pleased to say that this is no standard issue teen romance and it is certainly not anywhere near a Sparks inspired film.
It has been well publicized that Woodley fought for this role as if, yep I'll say it, her life depended on it. Her conviction shows in every frame of her performance, even when the storyline threatens to strain credibility but somehow never really does. Woodley, whom I've never been completely sold on as an actress even though she started to win me over in The Spectacular Now, is simply extraordinary as Hazel Grace. Woodley rightly turns Hazel into a hero of uncommon strength and vulnerability and power and even weakness. Her chemistry with Ansel Elgort, who also played Woodley's brother in this year's Divergent, is believably comfortable and intimate. It astounds me to ponder the fact that Woodley landed an Oscar nomination for her work in The Descendants, and there's simply no questioning this is a far more complex and satisfying performance equally if not moreso worthy of such recognition.
As Gus, Ansel Elgort instantly announces himself an up-and-coming actor to be dealt with in only his third film after the Carrie remake and this year's Divergent. While Elgort projects a certain serenity about himself, his performance as Gus is one of many layers despite his rather thick shield of wit and self-protective humor. Elgort's Gus lives in a world simultaneously fantastic yet deeply rooted within his real life experiences, a world where he fully intends to rise above his own cancer that claimed part of a leg before going into remission.
The two meet in a support group led in a far too brief performance by comic Mike Birbiglia, and while the scene could have easily been maudlin or cheesy it is most certainly not. The two connect, at least tentatively given that neither one seems completely convinced that either friendship or love is in the cards given their life circumstances. Gus is there primarily to support his best friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff, whose eye cancer has already claimed one eye and is nearly claiming another. Wolff, who also starred in Boone's last film, gives a more satisfying than usual performance as the sidekick and does so for much of the film while wearing dark shades.
The two also connect over "An Imperial Affliction," a book about cancer but not about cancer written by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) whom Hazel dreams of connecting with just to get answers to questions about this book she reads time and time again.
As Hazel's parents, Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (television's True Blood) take what could have easily been one-note caricatures and easily bring them to life. With the parents, the key is to watch them in the film's smaller moments and see how they respond not just verbally but with their body language and with their eyes. Laura Dern easily gives her most engaging performance in years, while Trammell announces himself ready for feature films.
The Fault in Our Stars is co-penned by 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, though it's certainly worth noting that they have used a considerable amount of Green's own dialogue from the book. D.P. Ben Richardson's lensing avoids the maudlin in favor of celebrating the humane, while the original music by Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott is near perfection and the film features a soundtrack you will without question find yourself leaving the theater and instantly wanting to purchase for yourself as it is very likely the best soundtrack of the year.
There are fleeting moments in The Fault in Our Stars that do actually strain the film's credibility, though I will also say that 24 hours after having watched the film I find myself completely unfazed by them and even, I'd dare say, understanding their place within the film's quite intentional construct. There are those who will fault the film for not taking cancer seriously enough, though my gut tells me most of those who claim as much are well intended yet misguided folks who haven't a clue what it's like to actually endure a chronic illness of any type. There will also be a few folks who don't quite appreciate a couple scenes that they feel are less genuine and more manufactured, yet once agan I'd dispute such a notion as completely unaware that life with chronic illness is a jumbled series of moments and experiences and relationships that feel both freakishly manipulated and transparently genuine.
In other words, this is real. If anyone tells you differently, they haven't a clue.
I still remember.
I remember making choices to push people away because I was afraid. I was afraid of being loved and being touched and being discovered for who I really am.
There were those who pushed like hell to get into my life anyway and for that I am grateful.
There were those who thought about it for a few moments, then quietly went away and traveled another path.
There were people who loved me and people who laughed.
There were people who touched me and people who were repulsed by the thought.
There are some people who've never gone away no matter how hard I tried to push them away, and there are people who've filled the little pockets of my life with fleeting moments of love and care and wisdom and tenderness.
There is an infinity. I guess I should say there's my infinity and within that infinity there are moments big and small that have added up to create this wondrous life journey upon which I'm blessed to still be on many years after my life expectancy has passed.
That, my friends and readers, is The Fault in Our Stars, a beautiful little film filled with beautiful little moments that you will remember for an infinity.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic