Telling a love story with an element of the tragic is a tricky business. It’s easy to resort to sappy soliloquies and cheap tearjerker twists in order to wrench every last tear out of the audience.
It’s not that “The Fault in Our Stars” won’t wrench a whole bunch of tears out of a whole bunch of people. Pretty much everybody in the theater, myself included, was reduced to a blubbering puddle of tears by the end of the movie. But the movie earns those tears the hard way - by getting the audience totally invested in the main characters.
“The Fault in Our Stars,” based on the popular novel by John Green, follows Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a teenage girl with terminal cancer. At a cancer support group, she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a teenage boy who had cancer and, after having a leg amputated, recovered. Hazel and Gus have an instant connection, brought together not only by those pesky hormones, but also by their wit, sarcasm, and shared interest in Hazel’s book.
A love story in which the lead characters meet at a cancer support group is destined to be a tearjerker, and “The Fault in Our Stars” definitely is. But it’s almost as full of joy and humor as it is of tragedy, and that gives the movie some balance and perspective. Unlike many similar movies, it’s not filmed through a gauzy lens, showing a girl bravely, sadly smiling at the man who loves her as one tear slides down his perfect cheek. When they’re not confronting their uniquely sad circumstances, Hazel and Gus generally act like teenagers. They laugh, they do stupid things, they make out at adorably inappropriate places, they have those dopey philosophical discussions that high school and college students like to have.
Even when the movie does concentrate on the cancer aspect of the plot, it’s generally handled in a fairly realistic manner. It’s not all Hazel bravely, beautifully dying with the man she loves by her side - not by far. There are complex emotions, and far from just concentrating on their ill-fated love story, there are scenes that deal with issues like Hazel’s concern about what her parents will do with themselves when she’s gone.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is also helped along enormously by the fantastic acting by the leads. Ansel Elgort is wonderful as the cocky, cute Gus. Gus is a tough character for me, because he’s kind of pretentious. When I read the book of “The Fault in Our Stars,” I knew it was going to be tough to find an actor who could make Gus likable while keeping his sometimes eye-roll-inducing affectations (which are pretty central to his character) intact. Elgort does an admirable job keeping Augustus firmly on the “charming” side of the line.
But it’s Shailene Woodley who really shines in “The Fault in Our Stars.” Woodley is perfect as Hazel, sarcastic and witty and just a little bit angry (which she has every right to be), but also sweet and loving and, eventually, totally in love with Augustus despite herself. It’s easy to see that her complex emotions are always bubbling just under the surface, and her conflicted feelings about falling in love while living with a terminal disease are utterly believable. The performance is nothing short of stunning.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is everything I hoped it would be. I greatly enjoyed the novel, and the movie, while not quite as good (it never is), is incredibly faithful to the book. Whole lines of dialogue are reproduced in the movie, and it’s a testament both to John Green’s good writing and the acting by Woodley and Elgort that it didn’t feel forced. I was also afraid that the movie would cut out one of my favorite things about the book - the wit and sarcasm. It would have been easy to cut that out and make the movie a more maudlin affair, but the movie kept in a lot of the “bite” that I responded to in the book. This movie is an A+ adaptation.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is pretty close to an A+ movie, too. It does have its moments that it teeters into sappy territory, and, boy, if you don’t like tragic romantic tearjerkers this is definitely not the movie for you. But this is human drama of the highest order, and there is a whole lot to love about the movie.
Just don’t forget to bring the Kleenex.
Jenny’s Take: See it tonight.
(Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language. Runs 125 minutes.)