In the opening voice-over of the funny, sweet, three-hankie tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, Shailene Woodley’s terminally ill 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster tells the audience what kind of movie they’re about to see. Or rather, what kind they’re not about to see. ”I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories,” she says. ”On the one hand, you can sugarcoat it — nothing is too messed up that it can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song. I like that version as much as the next girl does.” But, she concludes, that’s not the truth. It’s been four decades since Love Story turned young love doomed by cancer into saccharine Hallmark hooey. And it’s safe to say that Hazel Grace would have hated that film. A generation of teens like her have been weaned on YA novels (including the 2012 John Green best-seller this is based on), leading to more discerning palates. They can sniff out condescension from a thousand yards. That’s why they’re lucky to have an actress as effortlessly charismatic and natural as 22-year-old Woodley (The Descendants, Divergent) as their stand-in.
Her Hazel Grace, despite a diagnosis of thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, is nobody’s martyr. She’s a sarcastic straight shooter who has accepted her fate and isn’t ashamed about the tubes under her nose or the unwieldy oxygen tank she has to lug around like a millstone. Then she meets a cancer survivor named Augustus at a support group, and his sunny worldview throws her. Gus, played by Woodley’s Divergent costar Ansel Elgort, lost his leg to the disease but remains unrelentingly upbeat. And he woos Hazel Grace as if his life depended on it; you get the impression that in some ways maybe it does. He takes her on picnics, they read each other’s favorite books. He even whisks her and her mother (an excellent Laura Dern) off to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author. In other words, he’s too good to be true. That’s the main flaw with Josh Boone’s otherwise poignant film. In Gus’ manic wish-fulfillment adorableness, he’s as eager to please as a litter of cocker-spaniel puppies. It’s as grating as it is hard to buy. I realize that complaint may sound heartless and might not wash with fans of the book who have a ton invested in these characters already, but I couldn’t help wondering what kind of spiky unpredictability a Say Anything-era John Cusack would have brought to the character — with or without the requisite Peter Gabriel song. B