Just so you know what you’re in for with “The Fault in Our Stars”: The film shows its teenage protagonist, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), who has stage IV cancer, struggle for breath while slowly ascending stairs at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. With oxygen tank in tow.
“Fault in Our Stars” is not messing around. It wants your tears.
It gets them, but less because of that scene’s symbolism overload – a bright, seriously ill American girl pays tribute to a bright European girl cut down in her prime – than the unforced way Woodley plays this and every moment.
Woodley (“Divergent”) is such a fresh, wonderful presence that you want to write sonnets to her talent, much the way Gus (Ansel Elgort), the handsome romantic Hazel meets in a cancer support group, woos Hazel with flowers and a trip to Amsterdam from their hometown of Indianapolis. (Pittsburgh doubles for Indianapolis in “Stars,” but Amsterdam and the Frank house play themselves).
But waxing poetic about Woodley is challenging. There’s little flashy or striking about her work – little on which to grab hold. Yet “effortless” sells her craftsmanship short. It’s through that craft that she seems like a real person at all times on screen, whether training to be a warrior in “Divergent” or falling for a charming but troubled boy in “The Spectacular Now.”
Her authenticity anchors all her films, but it’s especially vital to “The Fault in Our Stars,” adapted from John Green’s best-selling 2012 young-adult novel. The book told Hazel’s story in the first person. Her voice, witty and literate, leapt off the page as she offered an insider’s guide to the world of kids with cancer: of pain and pills, tests and hospitalizations, chronically heartbroken parents and “cancer perks” for kids such as wishes granted by a Make-A-Wish-like foundation.
A movie rarely can capture a novel’s first-person narration, because it is foremost a visual medium. When one tries, the results can be awkward. “Stars,” adapted by “Spectacular Now” screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and directed with sensitivity by Josh Boone (“Stuck in Love”), tries only occasionally, and weaves it in seamlessly when it does.
Yet without more of Hazel’s narration, the movie inevitably loses part of what made the book special. The book’s more intentionally heart-tugging moments, for example, seem sappier on screen, without Hazel’s unfailing narrative honesty couching them.
But Woodley’s performance nearly compensates, because she can give the viewer access to what Hazel feels without needing to narrate it. Woodley’s face always seems to tell the truth, which is perfect for a character who is a truth teller and realist from way back. Or at least back to when Hazel, who has thyroid and lung cancer, almost died a few years ago.
Granted a reprieve by an experimental drug, Hazel neither rails against fate nor celebrates each remaining moment. It’s hard to celebrate when it’s still hard to breathe. Hazel just wants the comfort of watching bad TV and re-reading her favorite book, which is about a girl with cancer, as she tries to manage her parents’ sadness.
Hazel’s dad (a likable Sam Trammell) tries for easygoing but mostly looks terrified about his daughter’s health. Her mother goes the cheerleader route, though Laura Dern – the Shailene Woodley of the mid- to late 1980s and early ’90s – masterfully laces the mother’s pep with deep worry.
Hazel’s mom encourages her to leave the house and attend the support group, where she can speak with other kids with similar issues. But once in the group, Hazel can’t focus on the sharing because a cute guy keeps staring at her.
Gus, a former basketball star in remission after losing part of his leg to osteosarcoma, savors his life. He likes Hazel on first sight, and makes it known. But he falls for her when she matches his banter, and he sees how smart she is.
Woodley subtly shows Hazel’s delight at Gus’ interest and also in how it allows her to be not a sick teenager but just a teenager, fretting about whether a boy is texting rather than about medical tests.
She need not wonder long about Gus. He is devoted nearly from the start. Elgort, who played kind jock Tommy in the recent “Carrie” remake and Woodley’s character’s brother in “Divergent,” exudes warmth here. Gus looks at Hazel like he knows some of her secrets but wants to know them all.
Elgort delivers some lines in a kind of speed mumble, so words get lost. But he’s great when it counts, matching Woodley in poignancy in the film’s most waterworks-soaked moments.
“Stars” tailors those scenes for maximum audience heartache, but Woodley and Elgort always resist going for cheap emotion. Instead, they play these moments as natural extensions of characters who act like other teens apart from the whole convinced-they-will-live-forever thing.