Let’s start with the obvious. For its core audience, “The Fault in Our Stars” is essentially critic-proof. If you’re a fan of the wildly popular young-adult book by John Green, and have already shed tears at its story of teenage cancer patients learning about life, love and sex as they fight to stay alive, then you’ll be a fan of this movie.
Slam dunk. Go buy your ticket.
But those who haven’t read the book? Both author and fans have pronounced the movie, directed by Josh Boone, extremely faithful to the novel, but does that make for the optimal cinematic experience?
Happily, we can report that despite the occasional misstep in tone, “The Fault in Our Stars” manages the transition from page to screen nicely. It also navigates with skill that tricky line between touching and trite, moving and maudlin.
'The Fault in Our Stars'
DIRECTED BY: Josh Boone
STARRING: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff and Laura Dern
RATED: PG-13 GRADE: B–
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes
The reason for that? Shailene Woodley.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years since Woodley’s breakout performance in “The Descendants.” The grounded, honest young actor’s mere presence lends an air of authenticity to whatever is happening onscreen.
That’s particularly crucial in the role of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old with an easy wit — intelligent, wry and pragmatic without being overly cynical. Hazel barely survived thyroid cancer as a preteen; a flashback shows the agonizing moment when her mother (a touching Laura Dern) told her it was OK to “let go.”
But Hazel didn’t, and now, buoyed by an experimental drug, she’s already taking college classes. She wears nasal tubes attached to a portable oxygen tank. At a cancer support group, she meets Gus — better known to readers as Augustus Waters (the appealing Ansel Elgort), and his sidekick, Isaac (Nat Wolff).
Gus is handsome and cocky, though clearly this is a fighting mechanism. He’s lost a leg to cancer, is in remission and determined to live — not just any life, but an extraordinary one.
But what defines an extraordinary life? The movie explores this theme as it follows Hazel and Gus to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author, Peter Van Houten (a suitably crusty Willem Dafoe). She is obsessed with his novel, “An Imperial Affliction.”
The trip is by turns disappointing, inspiring, joyful and tragic. A crucial love scene is beautifully handled, without a false note. It’s unfortunate that an earlier moment, involving a trip to the Anne Frank House, feels uncomfortable, cheesy and somewhat tone-deaf. But that’s a rare misstep.
And now we must warn you: About three-quarters of the way through, you’ll start hearing sniffles, then sobs, all around you. It’s hard to imagine you too won’t succumb, if just a little.
And that’s because of Woodley. “The world is not a wish-granting factory,” Gus says. No, but in finding a young actress who can make an audience fall apart while her character somehow remains together, the filmmakers certainly saw their own wish granted.