“This isn’t a movie,” insists Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) at the start “The Fault in Our Stars” in the brisk and bold style that comes to define the adaptation of John Green’s much beloved novel. Presiding over a montage of dinner dates and passionate kissing that she warns will never arrive, it isn’t long before the second feature from Josh Boone breaks that promise, taking license in only the way a film could to set a romantic moment in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam where bystanders applaud and say what the characters can’t with an Ed Sheeran or Lykke Li tune always at the ready. However, the film version of “The Fault in Our Stars” lives up to a more important one for the book’s legions of fans, judging by the many who could be heard sniffling in approval during the film’s regional premiere at the Seattle Film Festival.
If “Fault in Our Stars” feels a little less nuanced than screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter’s previous two dips into the romantic genre with “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now,” which have set the standard for authentic, poignant love stories amongst the young, their latest embodies the straightforward nature of its heroine Hazel, a 17-year-old afflicted with stage four thyroid and lung cancer who wears her heart on her sleeve. Armed with an oxygen tank at all times, she’s still suffocated by a life mostly spent reading and watching reality TV to pass the time between hospital visits and group therapy. Yet it’s while attending the latter that she encounters a breath of fresh air in Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an osteosarcoma sufferer who has lost his right leg and has developed a healthy self-confidence to go in its place, with his boast that “I intend to live an extraordinary life” enough to intrigue Hazel.
Boone is a clever choice for director, having last helmed “Stuck in Love,” a film about a family of writers who struggle to get out of their own way, and while there’s a little bit of that here as Hazel doesn’t allow herself to fall for Augustus as quickly as he clearly does for her, there’s a respect for words, particularly Green’s considerate prose which is persistently recasting the ever-looming prospect of death as reason for the pair to fearlessly fling themselves into living in the moment. It speaks volumes that arguably the film’s most devastating scene doesn’t involve MRI machines or a falling out, but rather an author that Grace worships named Peter von Houten (Willem Dafoe), who encourages her and Augustus to come to Amsterdam, a trip that ultimately doesn’t go as planned. Although Boone isn’t exactly able to hide his tugs at the heartstrings, with a workmanlike quality to the storytelling and a soundtrack that doesn’t quit, no doubt a concession to the film’s target audience, the film conjures that magical alchemy of true love more often than not.
After playing sister and brother in “Divergent,” Woodley and Elgort ably convey a different type of affection here, nicely balancing Woodley’s reserve and radiance against Elgort’s boyish enthusiasm, which makes Augustus’ proclivity towards grand gestures feel unforced and genuinely appreciated by Hazel. Both actors also wisely avoid the usual traps (and heavy makeup) associated with playing characters in ill health, though Boone, Weber and Neustadter are equally conscious not to set them up. The film also gets a boost from Laura Dern and Nat Wolff as Hazel’s free-spirited mom and Augustus’ best friend, respectively, who each give added dimension to roles that could easily be forgettable and make the most of limited screen time.
Of course, doing the best with the hand you’re dealt is the point of “The Fault in Our Stars” and in the end, this adaptation may not be all that different than effective screen tearjerkers of the past, but in staying true to its source material, its infinity is bound to be a little bigger than most.