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 of course, you probably already have.
The situation becomes more nuanced, though, for 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? Many films have failed, after all, for adhering too strictly to the written page.
Happily, we can report that “The Fault in Our Stars” is, despite the occasional misstep in tone, largely a solid success — a film that not only manages the transition from page to screen nicely, but also navigates with skill that hugely tricky line between the touching and the trite, the moving and the maudlin.
And that latter task ain’t easy. But there’s one major reason that the movie succeeds in this regard. Her name is Shailene Woodley.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years and change since Woodley’s breakout performance in “The Descendants.” Don’t you feel like you’ve known her much longer? Perhaps it’s because she’s established herself so firmly as one of our most interesting and yet also most grounded, honest young actors. Her mere presence lends an air of authenticity to whatever else 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, in a difficult part) 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 that carry oxygen from the portable tank she carries with her always. Urged by her doting parents to try a cancer support group, she reluctantly attends, and there meets Gus — better known to readers as Augustus Waters (the appealing newcomer Ansel Elgort), along with his sidekick, Isaac (Nat Wolff). Gus is handsome — very handsome — and somewhat cocky, though clearly this is a fighting mechanism. Gus has lost a leg to cancer, but he’s apparently 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. Their goal: to meet Hazel’s favorite author, Peter Van Houten (a suitably crusty Willem Dafoe), and ask questions about his novel, “An Imperial Affliction” — a book with which Hazel is obsessed.
The trip is by turns disappointing, inspiring, joyful and tragic. A crucial love scene is beautifully handled, with nary a false note. It’s unfortunate that an earlier moment, involving a trip to Anne Frank’s house, feels uncomfortable — cheesy, and, in its juxtapositions, somewhat tone-deaf. It’s important to note that the scene — and the rationale behind it — is conveyed far more successfully in the book.
But that’s a fairly rare misstep. And now we must inform you, dear moviegoer: About three-quarters of the way through, if not sooner, you’ll start hearing sniffles, then sobs, all around you. And it’s hard to imagine you too won’t succumb, even 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 fairly together herself, the filmmakers certainly saw their own wish granted.