Dying young


I am not ashamed to say that I cry easily. I can dissolve into tears while listening to an NPR story about school reform, a play about climate change, or while watching a bad TV show kill off a character that I only kind of liked. Yes, tears streamed down my face during that Glee episode about Finn’s death. I don’t get mad when I cry during a bad movie – at Michael Keaton’s Ghost for kids, Jack Frost, for example — because I know that the movie isn’t doing any work, but rather some image or line or situation is triggering an old emotion. However, I do appreciate it when the work justifies my emotional outburst, when screenwriters construct characters that deserve both my love and sadness and when directors resist the temptation of easy sentimentality and instead attempt profound pathos. The Fault in Our Stars, the hugely successful tearjerker starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, earned my tears, even if the filmmakers took a few shortcuts to get them.

Unless you’ve managed to ignore all of the advertising and hype surrounding the movie, you know that The Fault in Our Stars is a story about kids with cancer. The narrator is teen-aged girl with wry wit and ponderous emotions named Hazel, who is played by the preternaturally gifted Shailene Woodley. At 13, Hazel had thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs. While the tumors are gone by the time the story begins, her lungs are still damaged, and she must cart around a tank that pushes oxygen through tubes into her nose. Her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) are concerned that she spends too much time alone and moping, so they encourage her to join a support group for teens with cancer. Though she is resistant, she goes and meets a tall, cocky, very sardonic boy who’d had much of his right leg amputated when he’d had “a touch of cancer” the year before. Augustus is played with young John Cusack charm and River Phoenix depth by Ansel Elgort, who played Woodley’s on screen brother in Divergent.

They start spending a great deal of time together, with Augustus courting a wary Hazel and them bonding over their love for a novel about a young girl with cancer written by a now reclusive man in Amsterdam. When Augustus finds out that Hazel used her Genie wish – a wish given to kids with cancer, like those from the Make a Wish Foundation – to go to Disneyworld when she was 13, he decides to use his wish to go to Amsterdam with Hazel and meet the reclusive writer and find of what happened to the characters in the book they love. When Hazel ends up in the hospital, she dumps Augustus because she doesn’t want to hurt him. Despite that and despite the difficulties in traveling with barely functioning lungs, Augustus, Hazel, and Hazel’s protective, insanely understanding mother go to Amsterdam. The writer is not who they imagined, and as played by a typically unhinged Willem Dafoe, he is the catalyst for two major changes in Hazel and Augustus’s relationship.

I won’t reveal what happens in the next 30 minutes of the film, but suffice it to say that if you have a heart, you will cry. Director Josh Boone does overuse several tropes to egg on our emotions, including somewhat treacly music and dreamy montages of happy memories. But both Hazel and Augustus eschew the trappings of tragedy, with Hazel mocking cancer story genre conventions in her narration and Augustus making numerous jokes about cancer, often at his own expense. Hazel and Augustus are not raging against the dying of the light, as most characters in these sorts of stories do. Rather, they ponder the meaning of their lives and how they will be remembered while they stumble through frustration, illness, grief, fear, and adolescence. The surprisingly philosophical and yet utterly believable dialogue comes from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapting John Green’s novel, but it is ultimately the delivery of the lines with phenomenal empathy and naturalism by Woodley and Elgort that set off my tears.

The Fault in Our Stars
Directed by Josh Boone
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Willem Dafoe
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

Yet another teen-ager saving the world


The similarities between The Divergent Trilogy and The Hunger Games trilogy are impossible to ignore, so let’s get them out of the way. Both are about preternaturally capable teen-aged girls who help lead rebellions in dystopian futures, and both have been turned into big budget tent-pole movies with starry casts and critics-anointed leads. The Hunger Games has Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence playing warrior and heroic symbol Katniss Everdeen, while Golden Globe-nominee Shailene Woodley plays Tris, a brilliant and brave girl who diverges from the strict eugenic caste system, in Divergent. In both, there’s romance with a hunky fellow, a heaping dose of political intrigue, and some cool technology on which a lot of the plot points hinge. Both have training montages, big action scenes, lamentable deaths of good people, and some nasty villains. The Hunger Games books have a more complex and believable mythology, however, and both of the movies are better than Divergent is – which is not to say that I wasn’t entertained.

In the world of Divergent, everyone who has survived a horrible, global war now lives in Chicago, which is surrounded by a massive wall and where the population has been divided into five factions: Abnegation, who are selfless civil servants; Amity, who the peaceful, hippy famers; Candor, who are honest lawyers; Dauntless, who are the brave soldiers and police officers; and Erudite, who are the scholars and intellectuals. At age 16, you are given a hallucinogenic aptitude test that tells you which faction you should join, and 95% end up in the faction of their parents, either because the test told them so or they choose to remain. But you must join a faction; the Factionless become homeless and live on the street. There are those for whom the test doesn’t work. They show abilities and behaviors that indicate multiple factions. They are “divergent,” and their existence threatens social order. Usually, once they are discovered, they’re killed.

Beatrice (Woodley) was born into Abnegation, of which her father (Tony Goldwyn) is a leader and her mother (Ashley Judd) a dutiful supporter. When Beatrice and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) go for their test, the tester (Maggie Q) nervously tells Beatrice she is divergent but must never tell anyone. At the choosing ceremony, everyone expects Beatrice and her brother to go to Abnegation, but she chooses Dauntless and her brother goes to Erudite, which is run by a coldly scheming Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Beatrice leaves with the others from Dauntless, who like to run everywhere, climb things, and jump without knowing if they’ll survive. She renames herself Tris, befriends other initiates (including Zoe Kravitz as Cristina), and while training, makes an enemy of her dastardly trainer Eric (Jai Courtney) while falling in love with her other trainer, the serious and smoldering Four (Theo James). Meanwhile, Jeanine is up to something, conspiring with Dauntless’s leaders to overthrow Abnegation’s rule.

Woodley is a spectacularly gifted actress (if not as charismatic as Jennifer Lawrence) and she makes the movie better than it should be. Her chemistry with James is the best thing in the film, and her righteous indignation and almost foolish courage are great propellers of the mostly character driven plot. Nevertheless, despite showing great talent in other movies and TV shows, Judd, Goldwyn, Kravitz, Q, and Courtney give off little heat. And Winslet, one of the world’s great actresses, says evil things but just doesn’t have the temperament to chew the scenery the way a sci-fi villain needs to. Most of the faults in the film are in overly schematic story, but director Neil Burger provides little urgency and even less grit. In the moment of Tris’s greatest tragedy, I was impressed with Woodley, but I didn’t feel the emotions I was supposed to feel. The film keeps your attention and has enjoyable, if clichéd, scenes and sequences. But you may forget about it after you leave the theater.

Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Kate Winslet
Rated PG-13