Shailene Woodley has that special something that gives a breathtaking truthfulness to her work. Science calls it Shailenium, a rare element that powers her performances with disarming sincerity.
Woodley plays cancer patient Hazel in “The Fault in Our Stars,” earning our sympathy by never asking for it. Confident to the point of stubbornness with the adults in her life, she rejects her parents’ overprotective focus on her illness, insisting that they treat her as a whole person, not a collection of symptoms.
She’s still only a teenager, however. She’s determined not to dabble in romance for fear of hurting the other person. “I’m a grenade,” she says. “One day I’m going to blow up, obliterating everything in my wake.” Still, she doesn’t have the experience to stop herself falling for the wrong guy. That would be Gus (Ansel Elgort), another cancer kid with a beguiling smile and an easygoing wit. “All of your efforts to keep me away from you are going to fail,” Gus promises.
The film, based on the bestseller by John Green, leavens its poignant premise with insight and self-deprecating humor. The script by smart-romance specialists Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who gave us “500 Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now,” sees its characters affectionately, acknowledging their everyday struggles with the uncertainty the disease brings them. The notion that these two would be smitten and fall in love makes perfect emotional sense. It’s a pity-free relationship, which is what anyone in the circumstances would want.
And they can make light of their illness. There’s a loose silliness to their dialogue that makes them sound like smart, acerbic teenagers rather than cutsey jokesters. Woodley and Elgort are sweetly awkward, wending their way through a love that brings the potential for terrible repercussions, while offering an intimacy that lightens their burdens and offers the possibility of reaching a better place.
“The Fault in Our Stars” honors all facets of this rich, sometimes sad story. Expect to have a lump in your throat the last 20 minutes and to let go of a few tears at the end. Thankfully, the film earns that emotional release honestly. Anyone who can watch Woodley and Elgort’s romantic tug-of-war and not get caught up in their charm is defective.
Its adult characters rarely achieve three dimensions — Laura Dern is sweetly overbearing as Hazel’s mother, and Willem Dafoe is an abrasive caricature as a novelist whose work Hazel idolizes — but this isn’t their story, after all.
The film is narrated by Hazel in a voice that is wise but not wise beyond her years. She opens by warning that stories like hers often are told in ways that “sugarcoat it, so nothing is too messed up that can’t be cured by a Peter Gabriel song.”
Preparing us for what follows, she warns that she prefers truth. So does this touching, warm-spirited movie, even as it finds its own romance-pop moments along the way.