Though it’s correctly categorized as a teen romance, “The Fault in Our Stars” is above all a movie about cancer. Cancer provides the butt of the film’s most caustic jokes, provides the magnetic pull that first draws its star-crossed couple together, and provides the power with which the story eventually starts to squeeze its viewers’ tear ducts like water balloons in a pressure cooker. As such, it walks a knife’s edge between heart-on-sleeve sensitivity and crass exploitation for its entire running time, and the fact that it largely stays on the right side of that divide has to mark it as a success. Soulfully acted, especially by a never-better Shailene Woodley, and several degrees smarter than most films aimed at teenagers, this Fox melodrama ought to strike a resonant chord with young audiences.
Based on John Green’s bestselling novel, the film offers the first-person accounts of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley), a bright 16-year-old who can hardly remember not living with cancer. She came perilously close to death as a preteen, but an experimental “miracle” treatment beat her disease back to relatively manageable levels: She has to breathe from a tube tethered to an oxygen tank she lugs around like a carry-on bag, and her lifespan has no clear prognosis, but she’s far from helpless.
Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) are a loving, lovable pair who worry that Hazel is becoming depressed, as she has no friends and spends her time endlessly rereading reclusive author Peter Van Houten’s postmodern cancer-themed novel, “An Imperial Affliction.” After some insistently gentle prodding, she agrees to attend a weekly church-basement support group hosted by sappy Jesus freak Patrick (Mike Birbiglia).
Here she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a strapping, clever, impossibly handsome 18-year-old whose basketball career was cut short when cancer took his right leg, but who appears to have since made a full recovery. He asks Hazel out on a series of chaste hangout dates, reads her favorite book, stays up until the wee hours on the phone with her, and ever-so-gradually brings her out of her shell.
Hazel is a great character, tart without being cynical, vulnerable without being needy, and capable of tossing out bons mots like “I’m the Keith Richards of cancer kids” without seeming like a writerly construct. Augustus is decidedly less developed, essentially functioning as a male version of the types of restorative free spirits usually played by Kate Hudson and Kirsten Dunst in Cameron Crowe movies, and prone to dandyish flourishes — particularly his habit of brandishing an unlit cigarette as a sort of totemistic charm against death — that surely worked better as literary metaphors than visual ones. But their rapport is believable, their chemistry palpable, and the film is never more likable than when it unhurriedly lingers on their low-key courtship.
A few weeks into their relationship, Augustus springs a big surprise: Calling in a favor from a Make-A-Wish-type foundation, he’s arranged a trip for the two of them to Amsterdam, where Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) has apparently agreed to sit down with Hazel and answer her infinite questions about his book. (In one of the pic’s most darkly funny scenes, Augustus mocks Hazel for wasting her wish on a trip to Disney World, “pre-miracle.”)
It’s in Amsterdam that the film opens up visually — ditching the closeups and domestic interior scenes to take in the well-photographed surroundings — and Hazel and Augustus forge their most affecting connections. It’s also the only section where the film tips fully over into uncomfortable kitsch, as the couple experiences a romantic breakthrough during a visit to Anne Frank’s attic, while voiceovers recite passages from “The Diary of a Young Girl.” The film may get away with using cancer to tug the heartstrings, but combining cancer and the Holocaust is at least one trigger too many.
But this glaring misstep only goes to demonstrate just how well the film has navigated these choppy waters thus far. Director Josh Boone is hardly the most distinctive cinematic stylist, but he’s smart enough to let his scenes linger for a few beats longer than most mainstream directors would, and seems to trust his actors to carry their own dramatic weight.
Woodley repays that trust in spades. With close-cropped hair and minimal makeup, she eschews any overly theatrical tics, rarely oversells her character’s goodness and wit — even when her lines seem to be begging for it — and manages to convincingly convey terminal illness without invoking easy pathos. Though her character may be 16, Woodley’s performance is thoroughly adult, and offers a reminder that, while the occasional multipart blockbuster franchise like “Divergent” can theoretically be part of a balanced diet for a young actress, she has much more to offer the cinema than an ability to run through obstacle courses while mouthing mealy mythology.
Woodley’s “Divergent” co-star Elgort can’t match her level of naturalism, and his cocky, smirking self-confidence never quite jibes with his displays of boundless selflessness where Hazel is concerned, but he’s ultimately charming enough to wear down most resistance.
The screenplay, adapted by “The Spectacular Now” scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, does contain a few clunkers, and lays it on a bit thick toward the end, with a procession of scenes ruthlessly rigged to target the few remaining dry eyes in the theater. But on the whole, the scribes give their audience a good deal of credit, looping in some interesting references to neuroethics and calculus without overexplaining or dumbing them down.