A crappy cancer movie from a crappy cancer book. Be honest – that's what you're thinking. Prejudging is easy when it comes to The Fault in Our Stars, the movie version of John Green's 2012 young-adult bestseller about a present-day Romeo and Juliet, both starcrossed by the Big C.
It turns out The Fault in Our Stars isn't total crap on the page or on the screen. Green made the wise choice to be funny in telling his sad story. And the film, directed by Josh Boone from a wittily nuanced script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, of (500) Days of Summer, follows suit.
It's a fresh, lively love story, brimming with humor and heartbreak, and lifted to the heights by Shailene Woodley, 22, a sublime actress with a résumé, from The Descendants to Divergent, that pretty much proves she's incapable of making a false move on camera.
Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old whose thyroid cancer forces her to wear tubes in her nose and drag around an oxygen tank. As a look, it sucks. And Hazel knows it. Plus, she has a mouth on her.
What makes Hazel puke more than chemo is her cancer support group. That is, until she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, wonderful), a full-on charmer who is in remission since his osteosarcoma necessitated that one of his legs be removed from the kneedown. Gus is in group to support his buddy Isaac, played by Nat Wolff, so fine in Palo Alto and equally outstanding here. Isaac has lost one eye to cancer, with the other likely to go.
Depressing? You'd think. But the actors, under Boone's astute direction, never hit the pedal on self-pity. Hazel tells Gus her literary obsession is An Imperial Affliction, by Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe, superb), a recluse who ended his novel in midsentence and high-tailed it to Amsterdam. Hazel is consumed with finding Van Houten. So off she goes to Amsterdam, with her clumsy breathing apparatus, her mother (Laura Dern) and loyal Gus. Hard truths are learned. On a visit to Anne Frank's attic, Hazel and Gus share a kiss.
Hold on. It only sounds awful. Woodley and Elgort, siblings in Divergent, are way cool as lovers, putting a hip, hotblooded spin on what could be maudlin mush. They find the tale's comic spirit without losing its tragic fervor. Say what you will about the faults in Fault. It gets to you.