At a support group, teenaged cancer sufferer Hazel (Woodley) meets and falls for chirpy amputee Gus (Elgort). After introducing Gus to her favourite novel, Hazel is excited when he befriends the author by email. Will the pair meet their hero? The story eventually finds Gus using a Make-A-Wish-style arrangement to fly Hazel and himself to Amsterdam, where they meet the alcoholic, scornful author. Along the way, Gus and Hazel grow closer than ever, even as their disease continues to impact their lives.
A teen cancer drama like a rite of passage for a former child actress these days: Dakota Fanning did it in Now Is Good; now Shailene Woodley stars as a cancer patient with a similar desire to live life to the full while she can. But this isn’t all about a dying girl popping her cherry: it’s actually love interest Gus (Ansel Elgort) who’s the virgin here. That’s just one of the refreshing spots of table-turning in what could have been a formulaic Hollywood tear-jerker. It’s also funny: Gus and Hazel indulge in gallows humour rather than self-pity, though their resilience doesn’t stretch to unlikely levels.
While 16 year-old Hazel narrates, this also takes a look at the effect her condition has on her family. Laura Dern puts in a sensitive performance as the kindly, smiling mother fighting back the tears, torn between indulging her daughter and protecting her. Like the (bestselling) source novel by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars explores characters as much by what they don’t say as what they do. Hazel’s parents’ strained faces speak volumes; as do Gus’ cavalier jokes that help him avoid the truth.
Performances are likable and the casting’s on the money: Elgort (Woodley’s brother in Divergent) has a flirtatious sparkle while not an obvious hunk, while Woodley maintains the fresh-faced girl-next-door look that should win over the young target market. It’s also quite brave for a mass-market film to feature a heroine wearing a breathing tube throughout.
The Fault In Our Stars isn’t for cynics and it has its credibility-stretching moments, from the actions of cantankerous author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) to various scrubbed-up hospital scenes. It’s chiefly a fantasy: a romanticised tale of a short life that brushes the nasty stuff under the carpet. But it does what it does well — and that includes bringing a tear to the eye.
Despite a few missteps this is a spirited, touching romance and Shailene Woodleys best performance yet. Divergent fans after a weepie need look no further.