As fans of John Green’s best-selling, emotionally profound novel already know, “The Fault in Our Stars” isn’t just another cheesy sob story.
Green’s heartfelt young adult novel about two teens with cancer is much more than that, striking a chord that has resonated with readers of all ages who cherish how he touched equally on truths about living and dying while never manipulating or making his story maudlin.
The integrity of Green’s sad but life-affirming tale is preserved and protected in a beautiful film version from director Josh Boone, starring a perfectly cast Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as the ill-fated couple.
Make no doubt, this film will make you cry. But Boone keeps it all in control, righting the film whenever it seems ready to keel over into unabashed tear-jerker terrain. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote “(500) Days of Summer,” make an enormous assist by staying true to to the wittiness of the author’s characters and situations.
Green’s 2012 cancer tale succeeded where some others became shamelessly contrived weepers thanks to the distinctive voice of the narrator. Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley), the acerbic, well-read 16-year-old with thyroid cancer, is one of contemporary fiction’s most unforgettable characters. The book rested on her shoulders, even though it got a boost from the charming appearance of Augustus Waters (Elgort), the cute, one-legged former basketball player she meets and falls for in a humorously rendered cancer support group.
Appropriately, the screen version rests largely on the talents of Woodley, who stands out in every film she’s been in so far, from “The Descendants” to “Divergent.” Here, she’s fearless and flawless in a challenging role, and it would be ridiculous if this performance were overlooked come Oscar nomination time. Whether she’s lugging around her oxygen tank or expressing joy that she might be meeting her favorite author in Amsterdam, Woodley plays every roller-coaster mood swing exactly as it should be expressed.
On page and screen, Hazel is a brittle but highly likable character. She also is fully aware that she is dying and has been throwing up emotional barriers to keep loved ones at a safe distance, including her well-intentioned parents (played honestly by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell). In one heartbreaking scene, her tough exterior breaks down when she expresses to the sweet-souled Augustus (played with meltable warmth and compassion by “Divergent’s” Elgort) that she’s an “emotional grenade.”
Augustus wants to be at Hazel’s side, even when she explodes. Hazel initially doesn’t want to get involved, but she can’t help falling for the puppylike Augustus, who wants to be loved by everyone. Once the two swap favorite books — his based on a video game, hers a meaty tome called “An Imperial Affliction” written by reclusive writer Peter Van Houten — the bond grows stronger as they try to communicate with the author (Willem Dafoe in a scaldingly bitter performance) about his open-ended novel. At the same time, more health issues arise, and the two unite to help Augustus’ friend Isaac (“Palo Alto’s” Nat Wolff) — whose cancer has claimed one eye and is about to rob him of the other -- get over a bad relationship.
It all sounds painfully sad, and there’s no denying the material demands it be so. But “The Fault in Our Stars” is also wise and sometimes funny, delicately reminding us to live and love honestly and fully, while we all still have that gift.
‘The Fault in our stars’
* * * ½
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language)
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Sam Trammell
Director: Josh Boone
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes