Can a film based on a popular young adult novel that comes pre-sold as an all-time historical tearjerker, actually turn out as a good movie? Thanks to a couple of dynamite performances and a competent direction, yes, yes it can.
Based on John Green’s novelthat was published only two years ago, and directed by Josh Boone, “The Fault in Our Stars” is a teen love story in which both participants have cancer. Shailene Woodley is protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year-old who’s been living with terminal lung and thyroid cancer since she was 13.
Depressed and hopeless, she soon meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) in a support group. Augustus, there in support of a friend about to lose his eyesight, had lost part of his leg to cancer a couple of years earlier, and now approaches life with a charming, you-only-live-once swagger.
There’s a lot here that works, starting with the performances of the two leads and their chemistry. Woodley shows again that she’s the real deal. Narrating the film, and carrying around an oxygen tank the entire time, she isn’t just a victim or perfunctory romantic lead- she emerges as a fully drawn character. Elgort who, oddly enough, played Woodley’s brother in the recent “Divergent,” plays a true original, and the two are just wonderful together.
“The Fault in Our Stars” also boasts a top-notch supporting cast, led by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (from True Blood) as Hazel’s parents, and Nat Wolff as the blind friend.
The other strength is the script, adapted from Green’s novel by the “(500) Days of Summer”/”The Spectacular Now” duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. There are some relatively famous lines, passages and scenes which- I could tell from the very teary reactions of those around me at the screening- landed perfectly in the screen version.
The film usually- but not always- avoids schmaltz and maudlinness. In a worst-case scenario, this could have been an after-school special, or egregiously manipulative. But it’s not, mostly- It earns the tears.
What doesn’t work? I didn’t especially buy any of the scenes involving a novel-within-the-movie that the characters read, which it turns out was written by old mean drunk Amsterdam expat Willem Dafoe. Not only is the character, in a trope that’s starting to get old, just another knockoff of J.D. Salinger, his first appearance is obvious setup for the second, and the film doesn’t handle it especially well.
I also didn’t love the scene where the characters kiss while standing in the Anne Frank house. Now only is it a bit much to layer the Holocaust on top of cancer, it reminded me a little too much of the Seinfeld episode when Jerry and his girlfriend make out at “Schindler’s List” and Newman stews from afar.
Nevertheless, this is a powerful, special movie, which shows that on screen these days, Shailene Woodley can do just about no wrong.