USA TODAY – Pain demands to be felt.
That’s a key line in John Green’s beloved 2012 best-seller The Fault in Our Starsand a major component in the movie adaptation (*** 1/2 out of four; rated PG-13; opens Thursday night in select cities and Friday nationwide).
Pain is at the heart of a love story about two strikingly articulate teens living in “the Republic of Cancervania.” They cope with it daily and wryly acknowledge its torment. The pain depicted is not solely physical, though that’s a significant component. Emotional agony proves to be the toughest of all.
So, those unfamiliar with the book should be duly warned: Bring plenty of tissues.
Stars is an unabashed tearjerker, though it’s also about celebrating life. The movie is well-written, well-acted, acerbic, funny and wisely observed. Fans of the book will be glad to hear it is faithful to Green’s tale.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a bright and irreverent 16-year-old. Diagnosed with cancer at 13, she has to breathe from a tube connected to an oxygen tank she must carry everywhere. But she will not allow illness to define her.
At the behest of her loving mom (Laura Dern), Hazel reluctantly attends a support group for cancer survivors. Still, Hazel’s biggest passion is losing herself in An Imperial Affliction, a novel by a mysterious Amsterdam-based author.
One afternoon, a new boy stops by the support group. Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a strapping 17-year-old who has lost part of a leg to cancer. He and Hazel share an instant connection, and the whip-smart pair trade barbs, strike up a friendship, then fall in love.
One of the movie’s biggest assets is its spot-on casting. Woodley, so superb in last year’s The Spectacular Now and 2011’s The Descendants, comes across as a fusion of soulful, wickedly funny and vulnerable. Gus says adorably romantic things like, “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”
Young girls will swoon over Gus’ appealing blend of wholesome and rakish. Older audiences will appreciate the naturalistic dialogue.
Hazel shares her favorite book with Gus and they lament its abrupt ending, longing to know what happened after the last page. Gus cashes in a gift and arranges for the two of them to go to Amsterdam to meet the mysterious author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).
Their encounter with Van Houten is strange, but intriguing. However, a scene in which they kiss in the Anne Frank House, inspiring strangers to applaud, stands out for its artificiality (to be fair, it’s also in the book).
As co-written by Green and the superb screenwriting team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who wrote (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now), the script makes only minor modifications to the book, omitting extraneous characters and non-essential dialogue.
Hazel and Gus must endure far more suffering than anyone their age should. That these immensely likable young people should be stricken with terminal illness is supremely unfair, making their love story all the more poignant.
When things go south, they remind each other: “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”
The Fault in Our Stars does, however, grant the audience’s wish for a literate, exuberant and wise teen romance.