If you’ve heard anything about The Fault In Our Stars, which swept the box office this weekend, it’s that it’s a tearjerker. Even if you never read the 2012 smash hit YA novel by John Green, even if you never saw the indie-tuned trailer full of sweetly fleeting glances, you knew that this teen cancer romance was bound to be a melodramatic sobfest. But as leading lady Hazel Grace, played close to perfection by Shailene Woodley, says in her opening voiceover: “I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories.” For Hazel, this choice is between sugarcoating the truth and telling it like it is. But in a much more meta context, there is also a choice amongst movie studios about how to tell stories such as this one, which follows teens Hazel and Augustus (an electric Ansel Elgort) as they confront the perils of falling in love. They also have cancer.
All the ingredients here are arranged for the perfect, terrible Lifetime movie of love and loss and achy breaky monologues. And with a guaranteed audience of teenage girls, who helped the novel reach the #1 spot on the bestseller list before it was even completed, it would have been all too easy to just smear some mint lip balm under a couple of pretty actors’ eyes and procure a movie of forced, insincere tears. Luckily, the rabid fan base of TFIOS actually helped turn the tides in the other direction. Faced with the challenge of adapting what is arguably the best and most beloved YA novel of recent memory, Scott Neudstadter and Michael H. Weber (who also wrote 500 Days of Summer) took the task to heart, and delivered a film that is as sensitive, funny, and, perhaps most importantly, thoroughly relatable as its source material.
I have sung the praises of Shailene Woodley in my review of her other 2014 box-office smash, Divergent, in which she happened to also costar with Ansel Elgort. And although the two play brother and sister in that franchise, there’s no ick factor as they take on roles as friends and ultimately lovers, just the steady, unassuming joy of genuine chemistry. Woodley is nothing short of dazzling. Stripped of makeup and with shorn hair, she is wonderfully plain as Hazel, who wears an oxygen tube under her nostrils and is constantly accessorized by the mandatory tank she must drag around to keep her dying lungs inflated. Hazel is armed with a callous wit and a quite justifiable sense of ennui. When her parents insist she attend the support group at a local church, she agrees cheerlessly. Hazel is resigned to the idea that she will spend the remainder of her young life trying to bring comfort to those she is bound to leave behind, and thus she follows her parents wishes with tender resolve.
Despite her mother’s increasingly desperate encouragements to make some friends, interacting with other “cancer kids” isn’t high on Hazel’s priority list. So when she bumps into Augustus Waters, she isn’t particularly receptive to his coy smile or soulful gazes. But Gus’s seemingly infinite charisma soon warms her to his charms. Ansel Elgort does well in a role that is easily unbelievable, and possibly even unlikable in the hands of a less adept actor: boundlessly energetic, witty, attractive, and very, very suave, Gus is in many ways the ultimate high school boyfriend fantasy — a Manic Pixie Dream Guy for the tween set. Elgort, whose model good looks are boyish rather than chiseled, keeps the character fairly grounded, and in his more vulnerable scenes is good at letting us see the boy underneath the cocky façade, the one who would have spent his teen years in and out of hospital beds, battling the osteosarcoma that left him with one leg.
Hazel and Gus’s story is hopelessly romantic, but it also has all the pop cool and youthful sensibility that made the novel so successful. Hazel and Gus communicate primarily via text, cutely illustrated on screen in a yearbook-doodle style, and Hazel obsessively checks her phone for days after their first date. Gus likes to keep an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a metaphor, he says, for standing up to death, and while it may make the adults in the audience roll their eyes, it has all the bravado and pseudo-intellectualism that speaks to teens looking for metaphors in their own lives.
The cast is rounded out with a supporting ensemble that is fairly strong but ultimately overshadowed by Woodley and Elgort’s light. (That’s not a complaint.) Laura Dern is especially effective as Hazel’s mother, a woman whose only fear greater than losing her daughter is letting her daughter feel the same fear. Sam Trammell is fine but unmemorable as Hazel’s father. Willem Dafoe takes a special guest turn at Peter Van Houten, the author of Hazel’s favorite book, who gives the teens a dose of hard reality when they use their Make-A-Wish (never directly named in the film) on a trip to Amsterdam to meet him. Finally, Nat Wolff plays Isaac, Gus’s best friend, who loses his eyesight and subsequently his girlfriend. The often spastic, thoroughly depressed Isaac brings the rare big laughs to the film, and his appearances are regrettably few.
I will not reveal the film’s ending here, of course, and I do encourage you to see the movie (or read the book) before asking a friend to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that it is genuinely surprising without the drama of any shocking twists. The Fault in Our Stars’ greatest strength is allowing the emotional moments to occur organically, without any manipulative Hollywood trickery. The music swells sometimes, but it is never overbearing. The script could probably have gotten away with more melodrama, but it stays reserved, respectful of its characters and its audience.
And yes, it is sad. So sad that you will not be able to sit in the theater without noticing the chorus of sniffles around you, even if you’re not one to join in. By the time the credits rolled in the darkened theater where I sat, the usual end-of-movie murmurs and shuffling were replaced with choked sobs, small whimpers, and the occasional lonely honk of a nose being blown—which would undoubtedly provoke a brief round of laughter, followed by more crying. Outside, I watched a young man duck out of sight of his date to bend over his knees, taking several long, slow breaths as he held back obvious tears. It’s how I imagine the first audience of Titanic must have reacted when Rose let go. And while Fault In Our Stars has no icebergs or chandeliers, it, too, is an epic love story, and one that is also bound to remain in our collective consciousness for a long, long time.
The Fault In Our Stars is in theaters now.