Directed by Josh Boone
When we first meet Woodley’s Hazel, her mother thinks that her teen daughter has started to give up hope after fighting cancer for years. While most girls her age are socializing and going to parties, Hazel is forced to constantly be on an oxygen tank that she wheels behind her wherever she goes. Hazel’s not thrilled with being forced to take group therapy but she soon meets Ansel Elgort’s Gus and his best friend Isaac, the former instantly making his moves on Hazel. The two of them bond over a cheerily-titled book called “An Imperial Affliction” by a Dutch author named Van Houten – their endless quoting of excerpts from the book does nothing to make it sound like it’s a very good novel. Already winning her over with his charm, Gus surprises Hazel by telling her that a charitable organization is flying them both to Amsterdam to meet the author.
I’ll freely admit that I’ve been slow on the uptake in becoming a fan of Shailene Woodley. She made quite an impression in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” but I never understood her appeal in last year’s “The Spectacular Now.” Sporting short hair and an ever-present aspirator, she’s far more outgoing as Hazel than one might assume, although the way she delivers every line with an admittedly infectious laugh can get somewhat annoying. Even so, she brings a real weight to the more dramatic moments proving that she has more range than we’ve seen from her in previous roles. Elgort plays Gus with a brash and cocky demeanor, constantly cracking jokes to be charming, which takes far more adjusting to than his impossible-to-fathom admission of still being a virgin. Nat Wolff is basically there for comic relief and there’s only so far you can take that when you’re playing a character losing his eyesight from cancer.
With another sharp screenplay by Neustadter and Weber (“(500) Days of Summer,” “The Spectacular Now”), the movie somehow is able to defy any expectations one might have from the insufferable “will they kiss or not?” flirting between Hazel and Gus that makes up much of the film’s first hour. That alone makes it hard to fully get behind the premise or its characters, at least until they finally arrive in Amsterdam, a trip that’s almost sidelined by Hazel’s health problems. That’s when the film miraculously turns around and becomes a beautifully-shot travelogue that culminates in an encounter with the author of the book, played by Willem Dafoe, an egotistical drunk who destroys all of Hazel and Gus’ impressions of him. Dafoe is just one example of how having more experienced adult actors really helps bring out the best in the younger actors, and the same can be said for Laura Dern’s performance as Hazel’s overly-protective mother.
Josh Boone is a perfectly functional director and not much more, although to his credit, he does a decent job not only capturing the everyday ordeals cancer victims sometime suffer that others take for granted (like stairs!) but also building the emotional stakes over the course of the film for maximum effect by the climactic third act. The fact you can grow to care so much for two young people who do everything possible to aggravate the viewer as they’re introduced is probably the film’s greatest feat and an impressive takeaway.
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