Woodley, Elgort Shine In "The Fault In Our Stars"

Based on the massively popular novel by John Green, “The Fault In Our Stars” is a top-tier tearjerker and a veritable shoo-in for all future “movies that will make you bawl” lists. It’s as openly maudlin as any of its ancestors, but it separates itself from the pack with a resolve to soar as early and as often as possible – it’s a romance first, a tragedy second. It’s only through the emotional highs of its first two acts that its eventual punches to the gut hit so squarely. Is it manipulative? Exploitative, even? At times, absolutely, but only as much as any good piece of fiction.

Shailene Woodley (“Divergent”) leads as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager with stage IV thyroid cancer. She’s miraculously survived three years under a terminal diagnosis, but her future is uncertain, her only companion a bulky oxygen tank that never leaves her side. At the behest of her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), Hazel saddles up at a mawkish cancer support group. Its aim is far too upbeat for the justifiably cynical Hazel, but it’s there that she meets a boy that catches her eye – and she, his.

Ansel Elgort (one of Woodley’s “Divergent” castmates) co-stars as Augustus Waters, the aforementioned boy who playfully begins staring at Hazel Grace and never really stops. In remission from osteosarcoma, Gus’ past suffering and his resulting prosthetic leg have left him with a uniquely carefree outlook on life. He spends his days chomping on cigarettes but never lighting them – he wryly explains this as a metaphor for stripping the power away from “the thing that does the killing” – and generally being the best friend possible to everyone in his vicinity. His charm is overwhelming but very real, and Elgort sells it wonderfully.

Hazel Grace, as Gus endearingly calls her, repeatedly rebuffs her suitor, ostensibly as a favor to him – she sees herself as a tragedy awaiting its ending. But their friendship grows deep, inevitably becoming something more. As they bond over one of Hazel Grace’s favorite books, Gus decides to use his unused “Genie” wish on a trip for two to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author. This section of the picture sees its nadir – a misguided make out session in the Anne Frank House that awkwardly makes Frank’s suffering analogous to the plight of the leads – but it’s preceded by a wonderful extended cameo that expertly bucks expectations.

As things unravel for our leads, the film’s core themes of existential doubt and agnosticism – exceedingly thoughtful topics for a piece of young adult fiction – swell like a balloon, eventually bursting into a primal wave of grief. One mostly wordless scene is a startlingly lucid take on what it’s actually like to receive the worst kind of news – free of Hollywood finesse – and even the most jaded of moviegoers are sure to feel something. Woodley’s turn in last year’s similarly heartbreaking “The Spectacular Now” was inimitable, but she’s nearly as good here – and the future looks just as bright for Elgort.

Most crucially, “The Fault In Our Stars” dutifully captures the helplessness that comes with the passage of time – specifically, the blissful moments that we long to keep on our person like a phone or a wallet – while combating the notion that fame is the only path to immortality. That all of this is orchestrated so well by director Josh Boone, a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, makes the film all the more appreciable in its execution.

Its spell won’t work on all, as accusations of emotional manipulation are well taken. The pic’s intent is clear from reel one – it wants to make you cry, or at least feel really, really lousy – and it pulls plenty of strings to reach its desired outcome. But that responsibility lies solely on the source material and its self-ascribed place as a tearjerker – and “The Fault In Our Stars” is a good one. Between its lead performances, an impeccably paced screenplay, and plenty of thematic introspection, the film has the ingredients to please moviegoers of all persuasions.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 6, 2014
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Josh Boone
Screenwriter: Scott Neustadter
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Emily Peachey
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language)