'The Fault in Our Stars' handles cancer, relationships with class

What It's AboutJune 5, 2014 

Tears will be shed. That's a given. But what is unexpected is the abundance of wit that tempers the sadness in "The Fault in Our Stars."

Adapted from the celebrated young adult bestseller by John Green, a teenage love story is personalized with life-and-death issues.

Our fun couple, Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort), meets in an unconventional way -- at a cancer support group. Not your typical teens, how they cope with serious illness rings true.

Despite their complicated lives, they forge a meaningful relationship, and share sweet, tender, relatable moments. They also face their own mortality at an age when they are just beginning to figure out who they are.

Bonding over a novel, "Imperial Affliction," they make contact with the book's reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). But meeting one's heroes may not live up to expectations. Nevertheless, a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Amsterdam is magical and consequential.

What a journey for these kids and their families. You'll be grateful you experienced it, too.

Performances

Shailene Woodley plays the more pragmatic of the pair, for living with Stage 4 cancer for years has made her skeptical. Such a natural young actress, noteworthy in "The Descendants" and "The Spectacular Now," she achieves a plausible balance as Hazel.

Ansel Elgort portrays Gus with an indomitable spirit, a guy who brightens up a room and makes everyone feel better. He doesn't let an amputated leg stop him from embracing life. The actor lights up the screen every time he appears.

They make an adorable couple, and their emotional honesty makes the film all the more heartbreaking. Woodley and Elgort's chemistry is effortless, benefitting from their work as siblings in "Divergent."

Oscar nominee Laura Dern and Sam Trammell ("True Blood") deliver nuanced, believable portrayals of caring, compassionate parents coping with the unthinkable.

In supporting roles, Willem Dafoe plays his customary edgy guy, Nat Wolff lends gallows humor as Gus' best pal and cancer patient and comedian Mike Birbiglia is funny as the well-meaning leader of the support group.

What Works

Anyone touched by cancer will recognize situations and feelings. The film tackles dealing with the C-word, the Big Picture, and facing life's challenges with a sincerity that's admirable.

For fans of the book, the adaptation is fairly faithful. The written word is valued, and combined with voice-overs and text messages, the movie percolates with smart dialogue.

Its message about maintaining substantial human connection when adversity can overwhelm is always relevant.

What Doesn't Work

Director Josh Boone doesn't delve too deeply into the real nitty-gritty of physical deterioration, reminiscent of the classic tearjerker "Love Story" some 40 years ago.

However, he captures the mental anguish of how the disease affects everyone. Living with cancer is a new normal for many, and while the movie may not be as thorough as medical shows on TV, it still touches on the realities in a way that resonates.

The teens fulfill their promise of being remembered. It might be too sappy or maudlin for some, yet the film strikes a very personal tone that's eloquent and worthwhile.

3 1/2 stars

Director: Josh Boone

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Nat Wolff, William Dafoe, Mike Birbiglia

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language.

Length: 2:05

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