You should probably not see "The Fault in Our Stars" with anyone you're trying to impress. You'll either end up a puffy, sniffling mess of tears, or you'll finish the movie dry-eyed and convince that person you're a psychopath. Those are the only two options. This drama is an outstanding entry in its sub-genre, sadly dominated to date largely by films like "Love Story" and Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Based on John Green's young adult novel, "The Fault in Our Stars" manages to transcend those films with solid direction from Josh Boone ("Stuck in Love"), a spot-on script from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ("The Spectacular Now"), near-perfect casting, deftly created characters and often hilarious dialogue that feels closer to vintage Cameron Crowe than Sparks.
But "The Fault in Our Stars" isn't just a cry-a-minute film for teens looking for an emotional connection beyond SnapChat, and early on, 17-year-old heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) shares that her story isn't like "Say Anything" either. She meets the love of her young life, but it isn't a typical meet-cute, and it also isn't your standard story of illness on screen. Instead, Hazel has been forced by her mother (an absolutely wonderful Laura Dern) to attend a support group for kids struggling with cancer, and amidst the platitudes and inspirational stories, she meets 18-year-old Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). They immediately appreciate each other's not-always-sunny approach to living with illness. Hazel has thryroid cancer, which has now taken up residence in her lungs, causing her to wheel a cannister of oxygen with her wherever she goes. Gus is in remission from osteosarcoma, but the cancer took the former athlete's leg. Gus falls fast and hard for Hazel, while she insists on remaining friends to keep from causing anyone else pain with what she sees as her inevitably unhappy ending.
The two bond over their atypical outlook on their illness, as well as around Hazel's favorite book, "An Imperial Affliction." And we admire Green's heroine for her wit and intelligence just as Gus does. It shouldn't feel revolutionary to have a young female character with a brain in a film like this, but Hazel is refreshing, even though her exchanges with Gus sometimes feel a little too scripted and witty to feel realistic. Fans of the book should be happy with how closely the adaptation hews to Green's original story. There are small changes and edits that streamline the narrative, but the book's heart beats strongly on screen. With their previous scripts for "The Spectacular Now" and "(500) Days of Summer," Neustadter and Weber offered atypical looks at young romance, and "The Fault in Our Stars" fits well with that, telling a non-standard love story that is bolstered by strong characters.
Those characters are in turn served well by their casting. Woodley is becoming one of the go-tos for the atypical heroine, and you'll get no complaints from us. She captures Hazel's strength and weakness equally well, playing a complicated, imperfect character who is captivating. We were also charmed by Elsort's Gus; if his lines were said by another, less talented actor, we might have rolled our eyes more than sighed, but that wasn't the case. Along with Dern's heartbreaking efforts as Hazel's mother, "True Blood" star Sam Trammel holds his own as Hazel's father. He is given a little less to do than Dern, but it's interesting to see what he does when he's not surrounded by vampires and werewolves—and we like it. As Hazel and Gus's only ally at support group, Nat Wolff ("Palo Alto") is witty and winning, earning all the more praise for communicating emotion clearly while wearing sunglasses throughout the film due to his character's eye cancer. Comedian and actor Mike Birbiglia makes an all-too-brief, but pitch perfect appearance as the support group's leader, Patrick.
"The Fault in Our Stars" wins points for being more complex and stylish than most similar films feel they need to be. Most movies with this target audience are maudlin and manipulative, but Boone's film never feels like it's trying too hard to win our tears—or our laughter. It's most comparable to Jonathan Levine's "50/50" in this way; it will leave you feeling like you've been punched in the gut, but it acknowledges that there can be humor even in the worst situations. There are also some nice stylistic flourishes, particularly around Hazel and Gus's texts that make the film feel of the moment, while not being tied to any particular year (or operating system). It's an above-average entry into the genre, broadening its appeal beyond just teenagers, fans of the original novel and those who love a good cry. That said, don't say we didn't warn you; make your grandmother proud and stuff your pockets with tissues before you see this. [B+]