Shailene Woodley Gets Oscar Buzz for 'Fault in Our Stars' but Laura Dern Deserves Some, Too
It’s official: The Fault in Our Stars is a big hit. The film adaptation of author John Green’s acclaimed young-adult novel topped the box office this past weekend, earning an estimated $48.2 million. While many critics have argued that 22-year-old actress Shailene Woodley gives the film’s standout performance as Hazel Lancaster, a teenager living with cancer, veteran Laura Dern, who plays Hazel’s mother Frannie, does some phenomenal work, as well. There’s already some early Oscar buzz for Woodley — could Dern be headed for a nomination, too?
Her screen time may be limited, but Dern gives a layered, extremely powerful performance as Frannie Lancaster that sticks with you long after the movie is over. As soon as we meet Frannie, you can tell that she’s been through a lot. Though she’s almost always smiling, her eyes look tired. You sense that she’s holding on to some significant sadness. Caring for a sick child can obviously take quite a toll on a parent, but despite the hardship, Dern paints a portrait of a mother whose love for her daughter is absolutely unending, and her performance never relies on cheap tricks, boring clichés, or melodrama.
It would’ve been easy for Dern to plaster a smile on her face, grit her teeth, and not-so-subtly “smile through the pain” as Frannie, practically screaming to the audience, “This is all a façade! I’m really hurting on the inside, can’t you see?” But that’s not what she does at all, no. Instead, Dern makes Frannie’s almost constantly upbeat attitude feel totally genuine and never forced.
Frannie’s unwavering optimism is no doubt a coping mechanism that she’s learned along the way while caring for Hazel — the kind of thing you can definitely imagine people preaching at a cancer support group — but she’s grown to believe it. If her happiness was an act at one point, it’s not anymore. There’s a scene in the film where Hazel tells her mother that they don’t have nearly enough time in Amsterdam to do all of the things that she wants to do. Frannie responds brightly, almost as a reflex, that they’ll just have to come back some other time. While this upsets Hazel greatly (she begs her mom to just be realistic for once), it's hard to hold Frannie's optimism against her. Dern makes it clear that it comes from a place of love.
Though Frannie tries to hide the fact that she lives her life in an almost constant state of readiness, prepared to drop everything and rush Hazel to the hospital at a moment’s notice, there are times when she falters — and Dern plays these scenes beautifully. There are several instances throughout the film where Hazel calls for her mother from her room, and Frannie, afraid that Hazel’s health has taken a sudden turn for the worse, always comes running. Dern’s facial expression in these moments seems to say, “I’m here for you — what’s wrong??” It’s the kind of intensely worried but determined, ready-for-anything, fight-or-flight look that you’ve probably seen on a family member or friend’s face when you’ve called for help in the past. Dern’s ability to communicate so many complex emotions all at once through something as fleeting as a facial expression is really remarkable.
Dern’s “Oscar moment,” if you will, comes near the end of the film, when Frannie tells Hazel that despite what she said during a moment of despair in the past, she will always be her mother — even after Hazel passes away. Wisely, Dern holds back here, letting the power of Frannie’s touching promise to Hazel to hang in the air between them instead of pushing the emotion over the top. It’s an incredibly effective choice. At this point in the movie, the theater I was sitting in was a symphony of stifled sobs and sniffles. Yes, Dern’s performance is truly fantastic.
So, realistically, what are Dern’s Oscar chances? Unfortunately, she has a couple of things working against her. First, summer releases are often overshadowed by the flurry of awards season contenders that all come out at the end of the year. The Fault in Our Stars could end up being overlooked. Second, historically, adaptations of young adult novels have not fared well at the Oscars — just look at The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter movies. Some Oscar voters may dismiss The Fault in Our Stars as nothing more than a “teen drama,” a genre that, unfairly, isn’t always taken seriously.
However, if The Fault in Our Stars is able to maintain its box office success, I think the film — and the actors — will stand a much better chance of being remembered come awards season. It would be difficult for Oscar voters to ignore a movie with acclaimed performances and box office clout. That’s usually a winning combination.
Hopefully Dern will receive some awards recognition for her moving turn as Frannie Lancaster in The Fault in Our Stars. There's no doubt in my mind that she deserves it.
Images: 20th Century Fox