Last summer, The Spectacular Now was the teen-trauma film of note, being based on a well-regarded bestseller and starring an up-and-coming Shailene Woodley.
This year, it’s The Fault in Our Stars, which shares many attributes with its predecessor, including having roots in a popular young-adult novel, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and a much better-known Woodley, who moved up to star status with Divergent earlier this year.
Like Spectacular, it walks that fine line between moving and mawkish without falling too far over to the latter side. Unlike that earlier film, though, which didn’t make a huge splash in the mainstream, Fault looks to become the teary alternative to all the boom and bang of the summer superheroes.
Woodley plays Hazel, the typical outgoing teen-next-door living the middle-class life in suburban Indiana. Except she has cancer, and has to bring an oxygen tank wherever she goes. One of those places is a youth support group, where she meets newcomer Gus (Ansel Elgort, also from Divergent), who has lost a leg to his disease.
They strike up a friendship that quickly escalates into something more as they wrestle with issues of fate and mortality. As with The Spectacular Now, it’s refreshing to see teenage relationships handled with grace and depth instead of the usual snark and cynicism. Director Josh Boone ( Stuck in Love) stays out of the way stylistically and lets the considerable naturalistic chemistry between Elgort and Woodley be the draw.
Their conversations, wavering between youthful bravado and grim determinism, feel authentic, as does their budding romance. That’s no doubt due in some part to John Green’s book on which the film is based.
Nat Wolff ( Palo Alto, Admission) as mutual friend Isaac, a support-group member who is losing his sight because of cancer, seems at first an awkward attempt at comic relief, but his role deepens as events become more serious.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments that ring false. Laura Dern, as Hazel’s concerned mom, is one-dimensional, while Willem Dafoe as Van Houten, an author who has inspired Hazel, is painted in such cartoonish strokes that he seems more like a convenient plot point than a real person. Also, at just over two hours, Fault sometimes moves slowly and veers frustratingly close to TV-movie-of-the-week territory.
Still, that doesn’t dim the bright light at the heart of the story. That’s really the only special effect that this film requires.