There’s always a lot of sneering that goes on when films like this get made, and to be fair a lot of the time it’s justified – making a Hollywood movie about something as life-shattering as loved ones dying of cancer can be distasteful and even downright offensive. But enough ground has been trodden in this area for a lot of filmmakers to get smart as to what works and what doesn’t, and when a film like this gets so much right, and handles its material with such a degree of sensitivity, it’s nigh-on impossible not to get swept along in it all. Yes, this is a doomed teenage romance, perhaps doubly so in that both protagonists are cancer sufferers (they even meet at a cancer support group), but if you want a classic example of narrative sleight-of-hand, notice how the film sets up its premise with such an obvious sense of impending doom yet still manages to string you along.

This is helped by having two leads who deliver performances that don’t seem anything like performances at all, possessed of that utterly convincing naturalism that often comes with youth. Shailene Woodley could well look back at this film as the catalyst for a brilliant career, so capably does she carry proceedings. Wearing an oxygen cannula in her nose throughout, she’s the real deal here – comfortably portraying a witty and acerbic young woman who runs the whole gamut of emotions at a very young age. She also has great chemistry with her opposite number Ansel Elgort, who has a cockier and slightly easier job but also acquits himself well. The two of them together seem irresistibly genuine – while much of their interactions are familiar, a lot of that is because it’s how teenagers actually do behave. They often celebrate sentimentality, as does the film itself, appropriately enough.

Yet it also manages to tread a fine and treacherous line with hardly any missteps – it takes on the concept of dealing with serious illness and death at a very young age, and the various consequences that come with that. This isn’t as common amongst mainstream teenage drama as one might think. Yet despite such potentially melodramatic subject matter, it never once feels cheesily manipulative, and certainly never calculated or cynical. There’s a palpable sense of earnestness about the whole endeavour, as though it’s aiming for something a little more than just making tweens cry.¬†Rather than just being about cancer (thought that topic is by no means swept under the carpet), it’s more about teenagers in love, with all the hesitations, attempts to be confident in order to mask shyness, moments of self-doubt and intensity that come with that.

Not that it’s entirely serious either though – it’s surprisingly and very effectively funny a lot of the time, and even when it treads familiar ground there’s always an odd sense of realism to it, tonally very similar to something like Cameron Crowe’s first film Say Anything. It¬†also courts a fascinating metaphor throughout – the lead character is obsessed with a novel about a young woman with cancer (this is the sort of clever stuff the film throws at you), and goes on a quest to find out from the author what happened to the lead character after the book ended. Getting stuck in a rut over something like that is akin to not moving on after someone close to you dies, and the film is smart enough to let its audience figure this out just as Woodley does. It’s stuff like this that really resonates, and as the rest of the film tries to appeal to people’s compassion and intelligence rather than cynically plucking their heartstrings, it emerges as some kind of absolute triumph.

Very familiar, though competent, teen romantic drama stuff6
Shailene Woodley carrying a major film almost by herself at 21 years of age9
Celebrating, rather than sneering at, the awkwardness and melodrama of teenage love10
Handling the subject of terminal cancer with emotional honesty10
Prizing compassion above all things, and asking the audience to do the same10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
9Overall Score

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.