By ALAN SWERDLOW
The Fault In Our Stars / Directed by Josh Boone / PG13
I must admit up front that I’m not fond of sentimentality or schmaltz. Any subject treated in that way becomes artificial and offensive to me; after all, sentimentality is an exaggeration of feelings for effect or artificially manipulated emotional response. By its nature it denies the truth of genuine emotions and that’s what I find offensive. If you don’t know what schmaltz is, where have you been for the last hundred years or so? Actually, the term derives from the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat and used as an adjective perfectly describes the overly oleaginous, slick and unpleasantly sappy quality such emotional manipulation engenders. I’ve never heard of an overly schmaltzy movie triggering a coronary the way ingesting real schmaltz is supposed to do, but the possibility always exists.
I had little hope for The Fault In Our Stars – the title alone is threateningly juvenile, sounding like a Standard Ten essay topic – and the collision of a teen romance and the contemporary equivalent of Victorian consumption (a picturesquely noble disease somehow) seemed as doomed as the protagonists. Yet I was pleasantly surprised and nausea was kept at bay, largely because of some first rate performances and a lack of emotional manipulation.
I am told that the novel on which this film is based is much loved, nay, revered among teenagers. How closely or not the film-makers have followed the novel, I can’t say. The narrative is comparatively simple and direct: first love between two teenage cancer sufferers.
They meet at a church-based support group, “right in the heart of Jesus”, as the facilitator, slyly and amusingly captured by Mike Birbiglia, observes with the aid of his hand-knotted, blindingly overstated rug. Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) tells us in the occasional voice-over that she cannot remember living without cancer, and though things seem to be under control through a new treatment, she is perceived as emotionally depressed by her parents and sent off to the group to meet other teens in her situation. Permanently tethered to an oxygen tank, she is smart, tart and defensive. Gus (Ansel Elgort) has lost his leg and potential basketball career to the disease, and is wry and cynical and utterly charming. He sports an unlit cigarette between his lips as a symbol of his defiance of death, which is appropriately arch and self-conscious, and has all the right moves when it comes to wooing.
Woodley delivers a highly polished, effective take on her character, helped by some great scripted lines, and engages the viewer with the right balance of sass and vulnerability. Elgort, though a little more conventional in approach, fights his model-handsome looks and delivers a complex, sometimes witty teenager who will resort to surprising inventiveness to get the girl. Both are convincing and believable and sidestep some of the pitfalls that might ensnare more experienced performers.
However, it’s Laura Dern as the girl’s mother who really nails it, delivering layer upon layer of unspoken thoughts and ambivalence, while capturing exactly the brittle, slightly artificial energy that drives parents facing their children’s suffering.
The film is shot through by some mordant and more conventional wit, which enlivens the narrative no end, and stays (sometime just…) out of the threatened pond of schmaltz. There’s even some travelogue in the trip to Amsterdam (though using Anne Frank as a symbol is a little heavy-handed) and life-lessons, particularly the perfidy of adults, are learned. The denouement is predictable but fortunately unobjectionable, and of course tear-ducts are massaged at regular intervals.
On the whole I was surprised, refreshed and relieved. Schmaltz And Sentimentality remains in this instance a theoretical, mercifully unwritten Jane Austen novel, and for that I give thanks.