I suppose it would be really easy to write a review about how this flagrantly tearjerking melodrama of two teenagers falling in love while living with terminal cancer is the worst kind of emotional heartstring tugging, but that would probably be because I somewhat fell victim to it. It’s very hard not to, after all, given the premise, even without the little flourishes that are added to help you along the path. Those flourishes, thankfully, generally steer clear of big string-laden orchestration or gloopily grandstanding sentimental speeches from the parents (at least, as far as I recall).
What’s interesting is that the story is very much told from the point of view of the central character, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), and this — along with just basic business sense on the part of the filmmakers — perhaps accounts for some of the peculiarly airbrushed depictions of the dying kids and their love affair. They are the heroes of their world; their friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) is almost rock-star like in his blindness, looking for all the world like Ferris Bueller in his prime. It’s directed by the maker of the most comfortably middle-class film I saw last year (Stuck in Love.), so everything’s just-so here as well.
In fact, without Hazel’s ever-present breathing apparatus and a few scenes in hospitals, you’d be hard-pressed to spot that they were terminal, and that, presumably, is precisely the point: this is a teen love story, first and foremost, a film about living. When Hazel and the always goofily grinning and cheerfully upbeat Gus (Ansel Elgort) finally share a kiss, the bystanders applaud. They APPLAUD. I might add that this takes place in the most allegorically-loaded of locations, but then the film is at pains to create a world of metaphor and allusion. “It’s a metaphor” is practically the film’s motto, a refrain used to refer specifically to Gus’s habit of keeping an (unlit) cigarette in his mouth. And then there’s Hazel’s quest to find out what happens after the abrupt end of her favourite novel within the film (a novel about cancer, of course), that sends her to Amsterdam to track down its prickly and reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).
We might wonder what happens to her and her family when this particular story ends, but as Hazel discovers, that would be a mistake. The only thing that matters is what happens during the story’s telling. The key, then, is just to go with it, and as such it helps that Woodley is such a watchable and radiant presence at the heart of things. Many of us may know what happens when this story ends; it’s not worth thinking about.
Director Josh Boone; Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by John Green); Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Willem Defoe; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 20 June 2014.