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I consider myself fortunate to have discovered an early showing of this film. I arrived at the theatre to collect my ticket and noticed a line outside the building. Judging by the number of young ladies there, I knew immediately that it was for this movie, but don’t be fooled, dear reader. There weren’t droves of people outside. There were about twenty people including myself give or take. That number would soon grow by the time we were allowed into the theatre. It wasn’t a full house, but it was an experience nonetheless. Yes, the majority of audience members were female, but a movie like this has something profound to say about the human condition whether you’re a woman or a man, teen, tween or senior citizen. In other words, if you’re alive, this movie should say something to you.
At the start, we are introduced to Ms. Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), who is a teenager living with cancer. Armed with cynicism and a razor-sharp wit, she takes everything that comes along with her condition in stride. At a cancer support group, she meets the outgoing and charming Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cancer-survivor who lost his lower leg to the disease. Once the two cross paths, we know immediately where this goes, even if we don’t know how exactly it gets there. We know the destination, whether you read John Green’s best selling YA novel or not. I am on the side of the latter, having never read the book, but I may have to now that I am so taken with the story of a very different kind of heroism and bravery in the face of adversity.
Contrary to what you might be thinking going in to a film like this, it isn’t about two teens living with and/or in fear of cancer. I mean, it is about that on the surface, but all the cancer stuff serves just as the backdrop. This story is about love, really. Not just the conventional kind of love we associate with movies like this in the romantic sense, which is definitely a huge piece of this film, but I’m talking about the raw emotion of love. The kind of deep love shared between real friends and family members. It’s about how there is no real logic to love. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to love and support your child while death constantly threatens to take her away. It takes courage to open your heart to love when you’re halfway to a point at which you can no longer experience that emotion. It is brave to not only give love, but to allow yourself to receive it from others who love you. To love and live in that fully with the odds against you, is something special to notice and the character of Hazel Grace exemplifies that.
Speaking of Hazel Grace, she is brought to life in the most authentic way possible by the talented Shailene Woodley. This is her movie, no question. Sure, she has good support as any lead should, but like Hazel who bares the burden of her cancer with zest, Woodley bares this motion picture upon her shoulders and it is both a pleasure and painfully sad to witness. She owns every bit of the wit, cynicism, warmth and vulnerability she shares with us. We live the experiences through her and when she laughs or cries, and she will cry, we do too. I will admit that while I did cry a great deal, I wasn’t the only one. I heard many others sniffling in the theatre around me and let me say that there was a power in that experience. I felt a bit like Hazel in that support group, only I was comforted by the act of crying with strangers. This was largely due to Woodley’s performance. She was amazing in every sense of the word. She should be nominated for an Academy Award.
Another very strong performance comes from Laura Dern, who you might remember from Jurassic Park (1993). Her portrayal of Hazel’s mother Frannie, is touching and heartfelt. Willem Dafoe is around for only a blip as the eccentric and embittered author Peter Van Houten, but he does a great job of giving us an inkling into what drives his behavior. Nat Wolff, who plays Gus’ good friend Iassac, is purely around for comic relief obviously, because you could always use some comedy in a movie that deals with heavy subject matter. It is how he faces his cancer of the eyes however, that presents moments of great poignancy though, as well as humor. This is what Wolff brings to the table. Ansel Elgort is hard not to like as Hazel’s love interest, Gus Waters. He is super-handsome and is charming as all get out, which Elgort seems to bring naturally to this role. His charisma gets him pretty far, however it seemed like many times, he was on the verge of smiling or laughing when he shouldn’t be, which nearly took me out of the those scenes. Sharp editing during those points was not sharp enough.
That said, this wonderful adaptation is a truly resplendent, heart-wrenching, humorous and profound look into what it means to live a full and rich life on your own terms. It reminds me of a professor and mentor I had who had similar discussions with me about living freely. She spoke from the place of both a victim and a two-time survivor of cancer. Though she lost her third battle with the disease, she showed me that it is possible to be dauntless as death walks beside you. It is possible to continue to love and receive overwhelming levels of love even on your way into the next life, whether you actually leave or stick around for a little while longer. This is what Hazel Grace teaches us.
Tom Hanks once said in an interview on the film Captain Phillips, something about movies ultimately being fake things, and they are. Ultimately. However, this movie does something important, as any movie with something to say should, no matter how manipulated certain aspects of it are: it presents us with verisimilitude. Whether you know someone who has suffered from any form of cancer or not, this movie will move you. Take my advice and be sure to bring some Kleenex. You will need it.