In the discreetly assaultive film version of The Fault in Our Stars there’s a scene, faithful to the one in the best-selling John Green book, where Hazel and Augustus visit the Amsterdam home of a novelist whose cancer-related novel holds great personal meaning for two teenage Indianapolis cancer patients in love.
The meeting is a bust. Their literary idol turns out to be a cynical, drunken lout. The kids decide to shake it off and tour the nearby Anne Frank museum. Gamely lugging her oxygen tank up a series of narrow stairways, stage 4 lung cancer survivor Hazel makes it to the attic, with the aid of Gus, who has a partially prosthetic leg owing to bone cancer. There, surrounded by fellow tourists and visitors, the museum exhibit’s audio recordings of Frank’s diary fill the air, underscoring to Hazel and Gus the importance of cherishing every moment. They kiss—it’s their first biggie—and the onlookers break into applause.
If that scene works for you, and on you, then by your lights The Fault in Our Stars will qualify as a successful film adaptation.
Contrarily, if you find yourself resisting the premise and intention of that scene and its D-Day assault on your tear ducts, well, Shailene Woodley nearly makes up for it.
“The go-to girl for drab roles with grit”: That’s what Village Voice critic Amy Nicholson dubbed Woodley around the time of Divergent. While brave, sharp-witted Hazel is certainly a large role, drawn from a book adored by millions, only a fine actress could make her seem like a three-dimensional person as opposed to a young adult fiction narrator.
At the urging of her folks (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) Hazel attends a cancer support group at the local Episcopal church. There she meets Gus, portrayed by Ansel Elgort, who seems a little stalker-y, but he’s a babe and a courtly sort of fellow who speaks like someone out of a 19th-century novel.
The Fault in Our Stars pushes every button. Gus’ best friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), is going blind, and nursing the heartache of a recent breakup. Hazel is wary of opening her heart to Gus, but he’s ready to rip, and they’re simpatico in the extreme. On their dream trip to Amsterdam, arranged in defiance of Hazel’s doctors’ recommendations, they share a tender first-time sexual encounter backed by tons of sensitive ballads on the soundtrack. This is the audience reward for the suffering to come, doled out in a series of tasteful, leisurely goodbyes that take up the final third of the picture.
The director of the film is Josh Boone (Stuck in Love), working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Their screenplay (500) Days of Summer was pretty sharp in its depiction of a relationship built on a foundation that isn’t really there. The Fault in Our Stars works differently; the love is rock-solid, unassailable and grand. At this stage, Woodley’s direct, open, emotionally plangent acting is a full step or two above that of co-star Elgort. Boone’s technique, not helped by the editing, is prone to clunky reaction shots of young people in love and smiling at each other. There’s not a lot of easy ebb-and-flow onscreen here; points are made, obstacles are met, or not, and there’s too much dead air around the dialogue exchanges.
Woodley is an ace at handling laughter through tears—“my favorite emotion,” as a character in Steel Magnolias once said. She improves with each new film, even when the films themselves aren’t much.
The Fault in Our Stars (PG-13): ★★✩✩✩