The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Ansel Elgort, John Green, review, Shailene Woodley, teen movie, YouTube
I have to admit, I’m a little bit in love with John Green. It’s one of the unfortunate side effects of religiously watching various YouTube personalities. The number of people I’m currently besotted with is getting fairly worrying. However, despite this innocent infatuation, it wasn’t until I became intrigued by all of the hype surrounding his runaway success The Fault in Our Stars that I actually read his books. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen the point of YA fiction. I hardly indulged when I was a member of the intended audience bracket so definitely couldn’t be bothered after I left it. After reading, I was pleasantly surprised. Green’s novel is well written and deals with certain subjects in a sensitive and realistic way. However, I hated his representation of modern day teenagers and felt that some moments were just uncomfortable. Plus, despite the warning from a young colleague of mine, I didn’t find myself turning into an absolute wreck at the end because it becomes painfully obvious where the novel is heading very early on. It’s something that stopped me from finishing Gone Girl and it almost prevented me from making my way through TFIOS.

Of course, these days you can’t go anywhere on YouTube without someone discussing John Green and the film adaptation of his novel. It’s a lovely symbol of the website’s community and it has also ensured that the film is one of the most eagerly anticipated teen films since Harry Potter ended. Watching the gleeful writer update his subscribers on the making of the film has been joyous and, when I sat down to watch the finished product, I don’t think I’d ever believed I such an intense desire for a film to be a success.

The Fault in Our Starsis the love story of two teenagers, which is exactly the kind of tale that would usually have me reaching for the sick bucket. If not even Shakespeare can make hyperbolic teenage romance seem worthwhile then I don’t know who can. However, there is more to the story as both parties are suffering from or in recovery from cancer. So this isn’t exactly your typical banal teen rom-com but nor is it your typical cancer story.
 Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) has been living with cancer since she was a child and leads a quite life where she relies on an oxygen tank to get about. Pushing her daughter to try and live as normal a life as possible, her mother (Laura Dern) insists on her attending a support group run by a well-meaning but misguided cancer survivor. Luckily, Hazel meets the mysterious and hunky Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) and suddenly finds herself on a journey of love, hope and discovery.
Both teens, in an attempt to find an interest outside of their cancer, become obsessed with a book about a girl dying of cancer. In a pretentiously post-modern way, the novel in question, An Imperial Affliction ends in the middle of a sentence. In a thoroughly transparent move that is happily indulged by every sane adult she comes into contact with, Hazel becomes adamant that she has to find out what happens to the family of the sick girl after her literary death so her knight in shining armour (complete with annoying and hollow metaphor) whisks the increasingly ill girl to Amsterdam to question the book’s reclusive author (Willem Defoe). Seriously, what is with the supervising adults in this world?
My main issue with the film, and I guess by association the novel, is that is it very quickly becomes everything it sets out not to be. The opening voiceover suggests that this isn’t the Hollywood cliché where attractive young people fall in love and everything is fantastic. Although, that is exactly what it is. It is an idealistic story of two attractive, witty, clever and unrealistic teenagers who very quickly fall into an all encompassing love. Take the cancer away and you wouldn’t even have a pedestrian teen flick. I mean when you really think about it TFIOS is essentially just Twlight if Edward’s vampirism becomes only having one leg, Bella’s stroppiness becomes cancer, and the evil vampires/werewolves become an alcoholic writer.
John Green knows what he’s doing though. There are a lot of sentiments and phrases that are so beautifully written that you can’t help but get drawn into the story for most part. I mean even a natural cynic like myself can’t quite get over the poetry of the line “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” I mean it is shit like that has given birth to my unrequited love for the author. Although, just like when reading a Dan Brown and you know why every chapter ends on a fucking cliff hanger, you do sit there well aware that everything being set in motion before you is intended to rip you (or at least its teenage audience) to emotional shreds.
Of course, I maintain that the most emotional moment in the book and the film is Hazel’s memory of her mother weeping “I won’t be a mother anymore”. Even writing that sentence had me on the edge of tears because, quite frankly, it the adults who are the most realistic characters. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (who for a really long time I thought was the dad in Gossip Girl and it was really off-putting) were fantastic but underplayed thanks to the dominance of the all important romance.
The film stays incredibly faithful to the book and not always for the better. Upon first reading I found the
scene in Anne Frank’s house kind of weird but Green managed to just about pull it off with Hazel’s narration. After seeing it played out on the big screen I have to ask whether it was inappropriate to include it. When Justin Bieber made the stupid move of calling Anne Frank a ‘Belieber’ the world nearly crucified him: this film shows two teenagers casually make-out in the room where people hid from death every day and teenagers lap it up. Now I’m not one to stick up for the Bieb but do we not think there’s something a little fucked up in the logic? All I can say is, if, in the next few years, I find myself stuck behind hoards or horny teenagers waiting for their own special moment in Anne Frank’s bedroom then I’ll know who to blame.
It’s unfortunate that this tale will quickly become the romantic story that all misguided teenagers aspire to find themselves. I understand that everything could have been a lot worse and the main characters, apart from their kind of unrealistic and annoying traits, are pretty positive role models. Gus and Hazel are both intelligent (perhaps too intelligent) and handle their respective situations with maturity and humour. They also have a great chemistry thanks to their portrayal by Woodley and Elgort. I have to admit I had a bit of an issue with Woodley’s character but that probably has more to do with the actress’ fucking stupid comments on feminism recently. As I mentioned earlier, I’m still not completely convinced that the pair represent modern teenagers but I’ll take Hazel Grace and the metaphor wielding Gus over Bella and Edward any day.
TFIOS isn’t the teenage tome of our time and it certainly isn’t the greatest film that has ever been created. There is so much about it that I disliked or found questionable about both sources. However, TFIOSdoes everything it sets out to do well and it’s hard not to walk out feeling emotionally fraught but with a new outlook on life. Watch it by all means but make sure you take off your rose-tinted glasses off first.

Easy A (2010)

comedy, Emma Stone, review, teen movie

I have to admit that I really do enjoy a good teen movie more than I probably should. (I also enjoy a bad teen movie more than I should but for incredibly different reasons. I’ve lost count of the number of Hilary Duff/Chad Michael Murray films I’ve drunkenly laughed my way through over the years.) I grew up on the films of John Hughes wishing I could be Molly Ringwald (only with less painfully 80s clothes) and hoping John Cusack would one day wind up outside my window playing something by the Spice Girls on a boombox. Alas, I never became Miss Ringwald and, to this day, I have never run to my window after hearing the opening bars of ‘2 Become 1’ to find John waiting for me. However, I remained true to the world of teen movies: despite the fact that teen movies became much worse than the masterpieces created during the 80s. (I so very nearly wrote “despite the fact that teen movies never remained true to me” but felt that would probably be a tad too melodramatic.)

Of course there are some that have stood out from the crowd and every once in a while along comes a truly inspired teen movie. The 90s had classics such as Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You and the 00s had Mean Girls. Easy A is another of those witty female-focused teen films, like Clueless and Mean Girls before it, which concerns itself with that most important high school issue: popularity. It tells the story of Olive Penderghast, a supposedly invisible social outcast, who gets caught up in a lie that quickly escalates and turns her reputation on its head. It all begins when Olive’s best friend pushes her to lie about losing her virginity to a college student. This lie is overheard by an extremely pious classmate who quickly spreads the scandalous gossip around her fellow students. Olive’s altruistic side sets in and she attempts to use her new found position as school hussy to help her fellow outcasts to find their way whilst further sullying her reputation.

The film takes a certain amount of inspiration from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter which, coincidentally, Olive and her classmates are studying in school. Whilst the likes of Clueless and 10 Things are modern adaptations of classic pieces of literature (Emma and Taming of the Shrew respectively), Easy A merely plays with similar themes to Hawthorne’s novel: namely hypocrisy, humiliation, conformity, social cowardice and individual goodness. In accepting her position as the school’s most talked about, Olive sews a red letter A onto her new stripper wardrobe and struts around school wearing it as a badge of honour. The literary reference is really neither here nor there but it does add an extra something to the staple teen comedy. The comparison between the literary figure of  Hester Prynne and Olive takes the script from American Pie territory to something more akin to Mean Girls or Juno.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest thing about Easy A is Olive herself. Following in the footsteps of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Emma Stone elevates this potentially forgettable comedy into something amazing. We have a film that captures John Hughes’ ability to showcase characters who you either want to be or be friends with. I spent a lot of this film wishing that, when I was her age, I had been in possession of even a tiny amount of Olive’s quick wittedness, self-awareness and confidence. She is the type of intelligent and strong female character that quickly brought Stone from supporting cast to major player, thanks to some memorable roles in the likes of Superbad and Zombieland. It is very difficult to dislike Stone as everything she does seems so wonderfully effortless. There can be no doubt that within this movie she is the true star.

Alongside her we are treated to incredibly performances by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson who play Olive’s equally hilarious and incredibly laid-back parents. The scenes that take place within the Penderghast home are delightful and refreshing in the midst of all of the high school gossip and scandal. These are the moments that provide the audience with the majority of laugh out loud moments and Tucci, in particular, is a great companion to Stone’s uber cool heroine.

Easy A is not perfect (fought the temptation to make a reference to A grade there but I’m not one to fall for such awful clichés and uninspired writing) and falls down thanks to its several lackluster subplots. I can forgive the romance between Olive and Lobster Todd (Penn Badgley) as it plays out to become a lovely homage to Hughesian teen romance and I’m always up for any casual reference to that scene in Say Anything. However, the story revolving around the stale marriage of two members of staff proves to be incredibly dull and doesn’t sit well within the tone and pace of the main narrative. It is shoehorned in to provide more interaction with adult figures but doesn’t serve much of a purpose and has little to add to the overall message. There was some hope in the fundamentalist Christian group headed up by teen movie regular Amanda Bynes but, again, I found this added little to the overall feel of the film. Admittedly it created another link to the source material at the heart of this tale but there was a distinct lack of social commentary to make it relevant. Alongside the infinitely cool Stone, Bynes’ strained and desperate portrayal of the tightly wound Marianne looks like something that has been copied and pasted from a lesser teen movie.

Whilst it doesn’t quite reach the heady heights that ultimate teen movie Clueless once did (OK I’m biased. I love Clueless. I’ll be forever jealous of Cher’s wardrobe database and uncanny knack of setting people up. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great teen movie.) but Easy A provides us with a well above average teen comedy. With its inspiring female lead and overall non-judgemental message about sex, we have a film that, despite all of the bitching and fast-spreading gossip, actually has a pretty positive message. It’s something that I missed on its initial release after mistakenly taking it to be a fairly standard affair but it’s definitely worth a watch. That is if you can actually suspend your disbelief enough to accept that a bunch of high school students could fail to notice Emma Stone (oh, hello there new and obsessive girl crush).

Twilight (2008)

fucking awful, Kristen Stewart, review, Robert Pattinson, rom-com, teen movie, terrible, unintentionally funny

When Twilight came out about three years ago I was assured by a friend that I would “fall in love with one if not both” of the main characters. This same friend demanded that I watch the film as soon as I could as it would undoubtedly change my life. However, Twilight, like Dirty Dancing, was going to be one of those films I never lowered myself to watch. It clearly wasn’t aimed at someone like me and, I must admit, in terms of the series of novels I’m clueless. I do have it on good authority that the books are better than their big screen counterparts and, after finally watching the first film, I honestly can’t imagine how they can’t be even slightly better than the self-indulgent and pathetic drivel I’ve just witnessed. Twilight is everything I was ever led to believe it to be; essentially it’s vampire-centric, family-friendly porn. It is the stuff of every hyperbolic teenage girl’s fantasies. The handsome and mysterious stranger without the underlying issue of sexual desire. It is a safe but bland love story.

Whilst it is perhaps rather redundant to comment on the plot of any film based on a novel, the story of Twilight is beyond pointless. We see Bella move to a new town to live with her estranged father. She finds herself surrounded by a pleasant and accommodating community but only finds herself drawn to the mysterious Cullen clan, specifically the pale and, I’m told, handsome Edward. What takes place is a drawn-out process that sees them move together and attempt to overcome the small problem of Ed’s vampirism and desire to taste her blood. Twilight is neither a great romance or a terrifying Vampire film. Instead it is 122 minutes of self-centred teenagers moaning about their insignificant problems and idealising their ‘great love’.

Twilight is a film that places a great deal of pressure upon its two lead actors and, unfortunately, it is a challenge that neither of them are up to. Robert Pattinson, every Twi-hard fan’s pin-up, simply flounders on screen. Thankfully his input is small but the audience must still be forced to watch him pout his way through the story. Edward Cullen, the vampire with a conscience, is the mysterious figure of Bella’s, and many a fan girl’s, dreams. There is no real hint within Pattinson’s performance that any  potential threat exists. Lord Ruthven or Dracula he most certainly is not. Thanks to some dodgy special effects, Edward becomes a harmless superhero who removes Bella from some slightly unnerving situations. It is only towards the films end that the potential danger of their relationship comes to light but that is rushed over in a blurry mess of moaning and shaky-cam close up. Edward Cullen is not a Byronic hero; a complicated and dangerous figure who cuts himself off from society. He is a soppy teenager who enjoys his meat on the rare side.

Whilst she excels as an actor next to Pattinson, Kristen Stewart doesn’t fair much better. Bella is meant to carry the entire film but her relentless and completely redundant voice-over only adds to her self-absorption. After walking the audience through her discovery of Edward’s true identity, including a confession from the man himself, Bella feels the need to tell us she “was now convinced Edward was a vampire”. Well I’m glad that was finally cleared up. In Stewart’s defence, she is faced with the task of playing a deplorable and insipid teenager in dire need of a slap in the face. Bella never seems fully developed as a character. All of her relationships are turbulent apparently just because she’s a teenager. Rather than delving into her motivations, her cold attitude to the kind people around her is excused because she is a stereotypical teen. I can only speculate that trying to portray such a horrific person would be difficult.

For a story about love, admittedly a scary, obsessive, Disney-love, Twilight’s lead actors lack on-screen chemistry. Whilst I can’t admit to being terribly knowledgeable about acting techniques, I’m not sure the Twilight ‘mouth open, heavy breathing, stare’ approach is one to look out for. Whilst we are supposed to believe, as we are told on many occasions, that their love is the most spectacular love ever, we are never given evidence to back up the claim. Their romance suddenly just happens and is described by the pair rather than lived. It may just be an age thing but I could not understand why this coupling was something to fight for. Their romance is nothing to rival the great literary pairings even though they work hard to convince us otherwise. In all areas, Twilight tries incredibly hard to be something it isn’t. It comes across as something that looks distinctly like a film student’s end of year project, so desperate to show their knowledge they throw everything they can into the mix. All in all the film looks lacklustre and shoddily thrown together.

However, as I pointed out, this is not a film for someone like me. Twilight is harmless and adequate tale that would keep any teenage girl satisfied. It may wish to be a great example of cinema but at the very least it delivers for its target audience.