I do not mean this in a disparaging way, but every teen age girls and most young women in their twenties will be going to see this movie. The book has been huge, the stars are well cast and the time is right since all the other book based films aimed at this demographic have either flamed out or are still in the process of being made. It is as if God said “Let there be a movie for young girls to love”, and this was the result. Here is the phrase that someone heard and said let’s do this, “Young cancer love story.”
What can you say about a romantic couple that dies? (My apologies to Oliver Barret IV) Tragic love stories are the best, because everyone is suspicious of a happy ending, with tragedy no one worries about the future when the lovers are separated by death. That’s why Romeo and Juliet has lasted five centuries and “Say Anything” is mocked by the character in this movie. One of the “cancer perks” is that you will be forgiven for belittling other stories because yours is more tragic. You will also be forgiven because the story you tell has it’s heart in the right place. This is not a maudlin story or one about facing the incredible odds courageously. It is a story that feels real despite the obvious emo trappings that surround it. This is due in large part to the cast and the light touch of the director. They have processed what this book represents and translated it faithfully to the screen.
Cancer patient support group does not sound like the typical “cute meet” in a romance. It sounds like something out of “Fight Club” without the cynicism. Whenever love manages to appear, even in the movies, if it is earned and reflects a legitimate path, then it is something you can respect. I respected this love story because the characters don’t fall in love instantly. One becomes enamoured of the other and then there is some real cat and mouse pursuit. That they are destined to fall in love is obvious going in to the story, but the story shows us why it happens instead of merely showing us that they are in love. Unusual circumstances bring them closer and they handle it in a way that seems reasonable for the situation.
Shailene Woodley is perfectly cast as Hazel Grace, the central figure in the story. This is a tale told from the perspective of the girl. Even when the guys experience is driving the story, it is the female love interest that we follow through the plot. She is young and destined to not get much older. Her infirmities are such that the physical toll does not require her to fade in beauty as the movie goes on. Miss Woodley is a charming young woman with some nice screen charisma and she carries the story for the most part. Her counterpart is the weakness in the story, and not because the actor Ansel Elgort is not good. He is excellent at the clever by play and winsome smile and romance stuff. Where he falls down is with the dying cancer patient material. In the book (which I did indeed read), there is a physical transformation and a slow decay of the handsome and confident young man. He loses weight, and energy and looks sick according to the descriptions. In the film, he looks like the same guy we saw for the rest of the movie, only now he is in a wheelchair. It feels to be a little bit of a cheat that Hazel says in the prologue that this is the truth, not the sugarcoating, but in the end it is a little sugarcoated.
There are some wonderful moments in the movie. I loved the dinner scene in Amsterdam. The hurling of eggs at Monica’s car worked pretty well on screen. I liked the cute script in the dialogue bubbles that represent the text messages. The visit to the Anne Frank house is also very good. Laura Dern as Hazel’s mom delivers some very strong lines about the hurt that she faces and the reality that they will go on. It did not sound like the platitude of a parent comforting a child, but the resignation of an adult to the hardest thing they will ever endure. Willem DeFoe looks more normal as the drunk writer than he usually does in his films, so it was played very realistically and for the most part. There were some appropriate cinematic changes to the end of the story and they improve on the clarity of the resolution without dragging in a search mystery at the last minute. Honestly, the only thing I missed from the book was the added resolution of Sisyphus the hamster.