Indulge me in the following timeline: screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber rose to prominence with the screenplay to the 2009 film (500) Days of Summer. Soon after, Shailene Woodley delivered her first major critically-adorned performance in Alexander Payne’s 2011 film, The Descendants. That performance was followed by a key role in 2013’s The Spectacular Now - a film penned by Neustadter and Weber. Backtrack a bit to find cinematographer Ben Richardson lensing the Best Picture-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild - it’s difficult to imagine that picture’s success without the potent imagery that Richardson captures. All of the aforementioned artists have contributed to an exceptional piece of cinema since 2009 and all play a critical role in Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars.
So why is it despite the latent generational shift that’s promoted in the film, The Fault in Our Stars feels so woefully amateur? What should have been a significant statement from a crew of young artists feels so disappointingly restrained and unconvincing.
The obstacle in adapting John Green’s novel proves to be a significant hurdle for Neustadter and Weber. With (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, the two have developed a consistent track of employing voice-over narration. (500) Days of Summer had the crutch of nonlinear storytelling, a gimmick that concealed the duos weakness for developing characters. The Spectacular Now highlighted their missteps, particularly in how arbitrary and useless its framing device was employed - that film’s success stems largely from director James Ponsoldt’s measured and patient attention to his performers. But The Fault in Our Stars lacks the sort of directorial finesse that Ponsoldt brought to The Spectacular Now, leaving the two writers to navigate through material drenched in speechifying and melodrama. It’s a rocky start that never quite evens out.
Suffering from a cancer affecting her lungs, Hazel’s (Shailene Woodley) life is largely defined by her disease. She attends a support group where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort) and from there the film softens - a blossoming romance serving as the remedy to a disease afflicting both of them. Their diseases largely loom on the outskirts of the frame, rarely intruding other than to inconvenience the two momentarily - their romance will effectively touch upon all things necessary, including a trip to Amsterdam.
The writing becomes listlessly aware of its contrivances and proves incapable of escaping its genre trappings. Shailene Woodley submits yet another high-caliber performance, evoking a level of balanced cynicism to a film so gratingly soft around its edges. She never rallies against the overarching tone of the picture, but she doesn’t necessarily feed into it either - she’s essentially giving a performance meant for a stronger and more complex film.
Visually, there are some images that suggest something more interesting at play, but Ben Richardson’s photography is hindered by messy editing and framing. For example, a critical scene involves Hazel sleeping in her room and the sound of a house phone ringing. It’s a regrettable medium shot that would’ve been forgivable had Boone remained fixated on the image. Rather, he makes two cuts: one to Hazel’s bedroom door and then a close-up on Hazel’s bed. The scene is a watershed moment but Boone’s direction can best be described as impatient. He’s too quick to conceal and scurry away from the disease affecting his characters. As much as Woodley wants to push the film forward with her forceful charisma, Boone’s an obstacle she cannot overcome. As opposed to the punch to the gut that The Fault in Our Stars leads you to believe it achieves, the most it can muster is a tug at the pant leg.