Far from the shameless emotional pummeling it might have been, this adaptation of John Green’s cherished YA cancer drama finds a conduit to earned, understated tears—a tricky accomplishment given the material. The film’s linchpin is young Shailene Woodley (already the savior of several iffy projects, including Divergent), an actor whose effortless way with real-girlness and soft, exhausted voice turns her oxygen-tank-rolling Hazel into a fully fleshed-out teenage creation. Even as her character meets and falls for upbeat charmer Gus (Ansel Elgort, Woodley’s Divergent costar) in a support group, there’s believable banter between them that redeems a long-telegraphed outcome known to anyone who’s ever waded into the salty pool of movies like Love Story.
The lion’s share of the credit should go to restrained director Josh Boone, showcasing his text-sending, vulnerable duo (elsewhere, he even manages to coach Laura Dern away from her smeary cry-face). But the original story, faithfully honored, is bolder than its setup implies: A love of a shared novel leads the ailing couple to Amsterdam to meet its reclusive author (Willem Dafoe). It’s a welcome interlude where the condition of personal suffering is expanded to include bitterness, cynicism and even a political dimension when the lovers visit the Anne Frank house. Though supported by Woodley’s subtle narration, The Fault in Our Stars is relentlessly outward. That’s part of the book’s inspiring touch, and even if some of the supporting cast comes off as merely functional onscreen, the core of the tragedy comes to life in a heartbreaking way.
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