Fans of John Green’s popular young adult novel are fully aware of the demands that come with seeing the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars. Do not arrive at the theater without a fistful of Kleenex, a hand to hold (boyfriend or best friend) and enough self confidence to have no issue with weeping in public.
The rest of you? Prepare yourselves accordingly. Adapted for the screen by the gifted two-man writing team responsible for The Spectacular Now and (500) Days of Summer, The Fault in Our Stars — a love story about two witty, engaging teenagers with cancer — is a heartbreaker for sure, but it’s also a sweet, romantic film full of sudden warmth and humor. It gets everything right about being young and in love for the first time, from the shared secret codes that mean so much to the sheer physical joy of being close to someone who likes you. Best of all, the film never makes its characters into stoic or tragic heroes, choosing instead to highlight what makes them human — their hopes, their fears, their anger, the way they learn to live with knowing they’re going to die.
As the film opens, Hazel (Shailene Woodley of Divergent, The Spectacular Now and The Descendants) has grown particularly adept at whistling past the graveyard. Diagnosed at a young age with thyroid cancer that traveled to and weakened her lungs, Hazel is never entirely alone. Her constant companion is the oxygen tank she drags behind her wherever she goes, though she doesn’t go many places. She’s already got her GED and doesn’t have many friends, presumably because she has been in and out of hospitals since she was a child.
Worried about her isolation and depression, her concerned parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) nag her into attending a support group for young cancer patients. There she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), the most charming 18-year-old ever to set foot on the planet. Here’s how appealing he is: He’s the sort of boy who puts a cigarette between his lips but never lights it, a “metaphor” for spitting in Death’s eye. You can hear the teenage hearts pounding faster from here.
Gus, whose leg was amputated as part of his treatment, is cancer-free when he meets Hazel; he’s only at the meeting to support his best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who’s losing his eyes to another form of the disease. Hazel likes Gus’ cheery insouciance right away but is wary of any deeper feelings; an only child, she already feels guilty enough about what’s going to happen to her parents when she dies.
But of course, Gus and Hazel are young and attractive, and some things are simply meant to be. “I fell in love the way you fall asleep,” Hazel finally admits. “Slowly, and then all at once.”
The plot is driven by the planning of a trip to Amsterdam to meet a reclusive writer (Willem Dafoe in full Drunken Unkempt Novelist mode) whose novel about cancer Hazel adores and has practically memorized. Some drama ensues over her health — will she be well enough to travel so far? — but the real power of The Fault in Our Stars lies in the simple moments between Gus and Hazel, when they’re picnicking at a park watching kids play on a sculpture of a skeleton or joking around with Isaac or dressing up for their first grown-up date and beaming at each other over risotto. The key to any romantic movie is the chemistry of its stars, and Woodley and Elgort, who played brother and sister in the sci-fi adventure Divergent, are simply terrific together. She lights up in his presence; he handles the most awkward dialogue about oblivion and love so deftly you almost don’t notice it’s bit too florid to sound real.
Also a standout is Dern as Hazel’s relentlessly upbeat mother, who can never quite fully mask her ever-present tension and fear. She’s got positive thinking in a death grip, which irritates the practical Hazel. The scene in which she finally acknowledges to her daughter that she’s making plans for her own life after Hazel’s death is one of the film’s most wrenching and moving scenes (and this is a movie with plenty of wrenching and moving scenes). The Fault in Our Stars tells us we don’t have to leave behind a legion of adoring fans when we exit this life. Just being truly, madly, deeply loved by a few good people is more than enough to make our existence worthwhile.
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe.
Director: Josh Boone.
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber. Based on the novel by John Green.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 125 minutes. Thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language. Opens Friday June 6 at area theaters