Critic's Grade: B+
"I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories," says Hazel Grace Lancaster at the beginning of the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars. For author John Green—who wrote the book of the same title—he approaches sad stories with wisdom, wit and a heartbreaking blow that, foreseen or not, leaves an emotional impact. This film has his stamp all over it, and it expertly balances the charm and inevitable sadness that define his novels.
In voice-over narrative, we are introduced to Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a 17-year-old with an unpronounceable form of lung cancer and an often cynical—she would probably call it realistic—outlook on life that's best expressed in a line from her favorite book: "Pain demands to be felt." She sees herself as a "grenade," out to destroy the lives of everyone close to her with her impending death. When she meets cancer survivor Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) at a support group for teens with cancer, the two predictably and reluctantly fall in love.
Typical rom-com moments ensue: a humorous and relatable montage of Hazel repeatedly checking her phone, waiting for Augustus to text her for the first time; a room full of people clapping after their first kiss; a fancy dinner where the waiter refers to them as "Mr. and Mrs. Waters." But it's either their smiles or their looks of disbelief that prevent these moments from devolving into total cheese—the couple is aware that they're star-crossed lovers. This frees them up to make fun of their romance even during the more dramatic moments. "You've just got a touch of cancer," one says to the other jokingly, just after they discuss their numbered days alive.
This is the true success of the film—it seesaws between smile-inducing banter to talk of death and oblivion and then right back to the playful repartee. Woodley's performance is unsurprisingly absorbing, but the real fun comes with Elgort's Augustus Waters. He exudes a wicked wit and a magnetic confidence throughout that works with Woodley's world-weary intelligence. Their chemistry is easy and delightful to watch.
You'll probably hear people call it "that romance movie about kids with cancer," but really The Fault in Our Stars is a story about love and dealing with loss—and not about cancer. "Pain demands to be felt," sure, but love does too.