There are good tearjerkers that earn their emotional impact on audiences and bad tearjerkers that exploit them.
Cancer dramas dance across this line with particular frequency. For every smart, balanced portrait of living with illness like Jonathan Levine’s insightful “50/50,” there’s the grating form of bottled sentimentalism found in “The Bucket List.” But it’s not always that cut and dry. “The Fault in Our Stars” provides an inoffensive, if largely underwhelming, counterexample: An adaptation of Josh Green’s bestselling 2012 novel, it straddles the line between earnest weepie and a savvy deconstruction of one, partly because everyone involved seems to resist its inevitable direction.
Starring Shailene Woodley as a dying teen who finds love with a fellow cancer patient played by her “Divergent” co-star Ansel Elgort, the movie hits all the obvious beats that are primed to make you cry, from the shouting matches that devolve into tears to the tender moments pitched between tragedy and uplift. However, director Josh Boone exercises a noticeable degree of restraint with these scenes, and his cast plays along. Together, they show just enough caution to make “The Fault in Our Stars” stand out for its valiant attempts at turning into the formula expected of it. Though it ultimately can’t dodge that fate, it’s fascinating to watch the filmmaker give it a try—with a healthy boost from his lead.
Shot by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cinematographer Ben Richardson, “The Fault in Our Stars” casts the world of Woodley’s character, Hazel Grace Lancaster, with a delicacy that borders on rawness. Even the cheesier scenes are easy on the eyes; Richardson never pushes the visuals to brightly-lit soap opera extremes, and neither does Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script. Hazel, who meets the suave Augustus Waters (Elgort) at a cancer support group and quickly falls prey to his advances, often appears in closeup—drawing attention to the contrast between her gentle look and the breathing tube stretched beneath her nose, which attaches her to an oxygen tank to sustain her failing lungs. Augustus, who lost a foot to cancer-related surgery, naturally sees past Hazel’s predicament and falls for her, while her conflicted parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) watch from a curious distance.
The ensuing plot is a relatively straightforward process of soul-searching that finds Hazel yearning for a trip to Amsterdam in order to meet the author of a novel she admires. With Augustus and Hazel’s parents’ help, she eventually makes the trip and discovers the reclusive scribe (Willem Dafoe) in a disgruntled, inebriated state. No surprise, then, that the solace the dying woman seeks comes from the true love she consummates over the course of her travels. This rather obvious device unfolds with a fair amount of predictability, but “The Fault in Our Stars” constantly resists overdramatizing the mounting sadness that eventually overtakes the picture.
The movie works hard to make you cry, but its gradual manipulation is too lighthearted to justify much contempt. Boone gives the story a self-aware quality in Hazel’s believable embodiment of teenage angst: “The Fault in Our Stars” only turns into a sob story once she decides to let it go there by confronting her deepest fears. Her romance with Augustus, on the other hand, strikes a series of falser notes—unless the perception of his infallible affection towards her represents her own perspective, which is certainly a possibility in this mostly average product, which is just solid enough to hint at greater nuances lurking beneath the surface.
The movie capably universalizes Hazel’s plight by exploring a larger fear of mortality assailing its characters—and the catharsis involved in defying that fear—but eventually panders to the same wishy-washy genre conventions that it frequently works around. Yet scenes that are seemingly destined to fall apart, from a passionate make-out session to Hazel confronting her parents about their plans after her death, hold together mainly because the actors bring a visible conviction to their roles. But there’s a mounting sense that they can only carry it so far before “The Fault in Our Stars” reaches its destiny. You’ll either tear up or gag by its closing scenes; the savviest viewers will likely do both.
Boone’s unobtrusive style takes cues from the subdued nature of the material, but there’s little about the movie that makes the filmmaking stand out. Instead, it derives its chief strengths from a series of efforts to take the drama seriously, mainly embodied by Woodley’s onscreen investment in it. Though she already showed a capacity for embodying a wide range of emotions without overplaying them in Alexander Payne’s far superior “The Descendants,” the recurrence of that talent here suggests a process of smuggling involved in her performing abilities. Woodley has yet to carry a rich adult story on her own, but “The Fault in Our Stars” shows a rare capacity to introduce mature ingredients to a scenario we’ve seen countless times before. “The Fault in Our Stars” is unabashed in its efforts to make you well up, but the tears come from a real place.
“The Fault in Our Stars” opens nationwide on Friday. Browse more critics’ reactions to it here.