The first five-hankie film of the year, “The Fault in Our stars” is an adolescent “Love Story.” Based on John Green’s young adult novel about two teenagers who fall in love after meeting in a cancer support group, it’s a tearjerker that has been making teenage girls spout tears like water shooting from fire hydrants since its release in 2012.
“Divergent” star Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old first diagnosed with cancer when she was thirteen. An experimental treatment has given her some semblance of a normal life, but the cancer is now in her lungs and she relies on a portable oxygen tank to keep her alive. “My lungs suck at being lungs,” she says, “but theoretically they should work for a while.”
Fearing that the young girl is spending far too much time alone compulsively reading a cancer memoir called An Imperial Affliction, her parents Frannie and Michael (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell), push her towards a support group for kids with cancer at a local church.
There she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a handsome eighteen-year-old former athlete who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. He falls for her but she keeps him in the friend zone in an attempt to protect him from what she sees as an unhappy ending to their potential romance. “I’m a grenade,” she says, “and one day I’m going to explode and obliterate everything in my wake and it is my responsibility to minimize the causalities.”
It sounds like it has all the elements of a major summer bummer, but despite being set in what Hazel calls the “Republic of Cancervania,” it avoids the maudlin. Instead the story is told with acerbic wit, filtered through the life experiences of characters who have rarely known a healthy day. In the film’s opening minutes Hazel says she doesn’t live in a world where “nothing is so messed up it can’t be fixed by a Peter Gabriel song,” suggesting that there won’t be any easy answers offered up here.
Spearheading the uniformly excellent cast is Woodley who strays into Jennifer Lawrence territory here. Her Hazel is a realist, with a fatalistic streak, but still a teen and Woodley finds a balance between those aspects of Hazel’s life and personality in a remarkably complex but natural performance. She’s wry, calling herself the “Keith Richard of cancer kids” while inventorying her daily intake of drugs. But she’s also wise beyond her years. On her parent’s struggle she says, “The only thing worse than biting it from cancer,” she says “is having a kid bite it from cancer.”
As a terminally ill girl who lets down walls to let love into her life Woodley drips with charisma. Her performance—with capable assistance from Elgort and Dern—brings genuine emotion to scenes that might have gone the way of over-the-top sentimentality or cliché.
It’s true that some of the dialogue is overwritten—these are the most articulate teens on film since Juno—and the second half succumbs to a hint of emotional manipulation, but it works.
My biggest complaint about the whole experience was being splashed by the tears of my fellow moviegoers. Bring a towel.