The Fault in Our Stars (M)
Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern
DIRECTOR JOSH BOONE
REVIEW PIER LEACH
Shailene Woodley's performance as terminally ill 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Grace Lancaster is the luminous sun around which The Fault in Our Stars orbits.
The rising star, whose scene-stealing breakout performance was as George Clooney's firecracker daughter in The Descendants in 2011, delivers a performance of great warmth and wit as the story's narrator and intrepid heroine.
Fans of John Green's spectacularly popular novel will surely nod their heads in approval at director Josh Boone's casting decision, even if it takes them a while longer to warm to Ansel Elgort (who recently played Woodley's brother in Divergent) as her dashing and smartly funny love interest Augustus Waters. Elgort doesn't quite pull off the charismatic ease the book suggests, at least initially.
Hazel meets Augustus at a suburban Indianapolis cancer-support group headed by a sweet-natured Jesus-freak survivor named Patrick (Mike Birbiglia) and which she only very reluctantly attends to appease her worried, loving parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), who want their daughter to make some friends.
However, ever since the thyroid cancer she was diagnosed with as a preteen metastasised to her lungs and nearly killed her several times, Hazel has known she's "a grenade" and wants to contain the damage - which means keeping to herself.
That all changes though when Augustus, who was a popular high school basketball player until osteosarcoma took one of his legs, charms his way into her friendship over a book swap of their respective favourite novels - hers by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten, whose cancer-themed story that infuriatingly ends mid-sentence speaks to her like nothing else.
Adapted to the screen by Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now - the latter also starring Woodley), The Fault in Our Stars is a delicate, vibrant and quite finely balanced love story.
Of course, its very subject matter makes it a prime contender for a schmaltz overload. After all, we know death is inevitable from the very first scene.
But while the film softens some of the book's spikier black humour and smoothes over the grittier realities of terminal cancer, it never tips irredeemably into sentimentality. It verges on it but, like Gus's penchant for the cigarettes he never lights ("it's a metaphor"), it's too smart for that - retaining a funny, wry, beautifully philosophical wisdom amid the tentatively delightful, tender love story.
It is probably because Hazel and Gus are emotionally years ahead of your average 16-year-olds and Neustadter's screenplay stays as close as it can to Green's quite sophisticated philosophies on living, dying, mathematics and nerdy-sweet Venn diagram humour.
A trip to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten (Willem Dafoe, strong even though I'd mentally cast the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays out with mixed results - beautifully judged romance offset by a visit to the Anne Frank museum that is unfortunately lost in translation.
In the end, though, between Hazel and Gus's alternately droll and poignant contemplations on the meaning of life, death and infinity, it is only the stone-hearted that won't be left sobbing into their popcorn.
And who cares about them?
On the back of the novel, fans will want to relive the story any which way they can. Boone does a fine job of it; it's not without fault but Woodley's Hazel Grace is a bright star.