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'The Fault in Our Stars,' ‘Obvious Child' and Cruise bring welcome shift in tone to theaters

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post
Box Office
James Bridges - AP
Ansel Elgort, and Shailene Woodley in a scene from "The Fault In Our Stars."

“Maleficent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” join “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” as just the most recent example of sister power at the movies, a phenomenon that somehow still surprises industry executives even after such huge hits as “Sex and the City,” “Mamma Mia!” and “The Help.”

This crop of hits also suggests a welcome widening of the lens when it comes not just to women’s roles, but men’s as well.

In “The Fault in Our Stars,” Shailene Woodley plays Hazel, a gutsy 16-year-old cancer patient who strikes up a relationship with a patient named Gus, played by Ansel Elgort. For its tough subject matter – doomed teenagers grappling with imminent mortality – “The Fault in Our Stars” engages in its own form of romantic wish-fulfillment.

As friendship first and foremost, it ultimately blossoms into something more passionate. But its bedrock is the respect and understanding Hazel and Gus spend most of the movie building, with Gus especially evincing the evolved, self-aware consciousness of a man willing to forgo his own ego and physical desires to give Hazel the space she needs.

For Gus’ evil alter ego, viewers need look no further than Stefan, the power-hungry prince in “Maleficent,” who symbolically rapes the title character and sends her into a maelstrom of destructive rage and revenge. Rather than keep the story dark, though, the filmmakers confect a different fate for Maleficent, played by Angelina Jolie at her most sculpturally imposing. Rather than terrorize poor Sleeping Beauty, she befriends her, and “Maleficent” becomes not a saved-by-a-handsome-prince story but a parable of female solidarity and motherly protection.

And for Gus’ equally progressive, slightly more grown-up brother, viewers need look no further than “Obvious Child.” The indie comedy stars Jenny Slate as a 20-ish Brooklynite contemplating the termination of an unplanned pregnancy. But the film’s most sympathetic character may be her erstwhile love interest Max (Jake Lacy), who backs her up with empathy, unconditional support and stalwart earnestness.

In their own way, Gus and Max represent the evolution of the rom-com dreamboat: an easygoing, implicitly feminist guy who isn’t threatened by a woman who may be smarter or stronger or more emotionally complicated than he is. As male love interests in films that will be seen mostly by female audiences, they do important work in helping girls and young women ponder and define their own romantic ideals.

Just as encouraging as these paragons are the visions of manhood currently on view in movies that, at least superficially, are directed primarily at men.

Movies aren’t real life, nor do they accurately reflect it. But the assumptions, values and norms they project – or satirically scrutinize – have power to inform and shape our own. From “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Obvious Child” to “22 Jump Street,” what each of these films represents is progress – to nudge reality just a little bit further in a new direction, and maybe even a more enlightened one.

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