20th Century Fox Film via Everett Collection
Here’s the thing about The Fault in Our Stars: you are most likely going to cry. Regardless of whether or not you actually enjoy the movie, or how invested you become in the star-crossed love story at its core, or even how stoic and cold-hearted you think you might be, you're probably going to end up like everyone else in the theater, bawling over the traumas of first love and the unfair tragedy of cancer. It's best to just accept that up front.
Based on John Green's best-selling novel, this tear-jerker centers on Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a 16-year-old with a dark sense of humor about the disease that requires her to tote around an oxygen tank at all times. At the request of her parents, she attends a cancer survivor support group led by an overly religious, desperate-to-be-hip survivor (a hilarious Mike Birbiglia, who could have used a few more scenes) in a church basement. There, she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a handsome, charming boy who lost his leg to cancer. The two bond over some common interests – she shares her favorite novel An Imperial Affliction, he stays on the phone with her all night – and their steadfast refusal to allow anyone to treat them or their disease with kid gloves. And of course, they fall in love.
Like the film, they approach the disease with a twisted sense of humor, poking fun at everything from the group leader’s constant references to the “literal heart of Jesus,” their medication intake, and the most appropriate things to waste your wishes on. Despite being a movie about cancer, The Fault in Our Stars is surprisingly funny, with most of the laughs coming from their friend Isaac (an also underused Nat Wolff). It’s actually Isaac who feels the most like a real teenager, cycling rapidly through the stages of grief after his girlfriend dumps him right before a major surgery. The weight of the film, however, rests squarely on Woodley’s shoulders, and she does an excellent job as Hazel, balancing her sharp wit and sheer determination with the right amount of frailty and fear. Though she has enough magnetism and charm to make even the most pretentious, literary speeches sound somewhat natural, it’s the smaller moments where she really shines.
20th Century Fox Film via Everett Collection
Like his co-star, Elgort’s natural charm is an asset to the film, even if Augustus isn’t nearly as deeply realized as Hazel is. He’s a teenage dream of a boy – handsome, smart, and funny, with a tragic past, and the ability to win over everyone he encounters – and Elgort’s charisma and easy smile helps make some of his more pretentious quirks feel slightly more natural. His chemistry with Woodley is the strongest thing The Fault in Our Stars has on its side, and it’s hard to watch the way they light up in their scenes together and not root for Hazel and Gus’ love to triumph over all.
Fans of the novel will be thrilled that the film sticks so closely to the source material, although it does smooth over a lot of the issues present in the text. Though the most iconic lines and speeches are in tact, the streamlined narration cuts down on some of the more profound declarations that the characters make, allowing them to speak more like real people. Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber's determination to play up the characters' dark sense of humor also helps greatly, punctuating some of the more maudlin scenes with a much needed laugh. Still, it doesn’t all work. Hazel and Gus’ visit to the Anne Frank House gets a cloying voice-over, and it remains the worst possible place for the couple to share their first kiss. Interspersing the new dialogue with Green’s monologues can be clunky at times, and Gus’ metaphor probably works much better as a literary conceit than as something a real human being would do. And when the third act of the film pulls out all of the stops to ensure there isn’t a dry eye in the theater, the film lays on the sap a bit too thick in its treatment of its big tragedy.
But by that point in the film, after having bawled your way through half a bucket of popcorn and several tissues, it probably won't matter. Because that beautifully lit, perfectly soundtracked heartbreak is the selling point of Hazel and Gus' doomed love story, and precisely the appeal of any good cancer movie – and if the ruined mascara and muffled sobs are any indication, The Fault in Our Stars is a good one.