“This is the truth. Sorry.” This warning-cum-promise, delivered by 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) in the voiceover monologue that opens The Fault in Our Stars, is the first and most telling moment of self-sabotage in Josh Boone’s faintly wry but mostly cloying film. Boone and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber know what a difficult task they have in adapting John Green’s best-selling novel, about a tentative romance between two cancer-stricken teenagers, into a durable screen product that will appeal to younger target audience without quickly becoming a punchline for everyone else. As a result, they foreground this cocked-eyebrow notion of “the truth” as early and often as possible: This isn’t just “a movie,” Hazel’s voiceover intones over a close-up of Woodley’s wonderfully expressive eyes, but a document of authentic lived experience that dares to stare terminal cancer baldly in the face rather than hide behind euphemisms and syrupy montages. A noble mission, to be sure, and one that shows the filmmakers have the right instincts about how to tell this story, but ultimately The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t live up to these claims, as it takes few chances, frequently using sass as a smokescreen, hiding what’s unoriginal and cheaply sentimental about this story behind a veil of witticisms about oblivion and “cancer perks.”
In Hazel, the screenwriters have developed a hugely appealing but also believable (and often believably obnoxious) adolescent protagonist who handles the poor hand life has dealt her with grace, if not sagacity; indeed, if you called her a martyr, she’d probably throw a punch your way. The many voiceover monologues, predominantly employed in the film’s first third to dictate theme and tone, may lay the precocious rambling on thick, but when Hazel and her sweet-and-sour persona is in action, her idiosyncrasies add grit to this familiar story. Her soft-pedaling around her shell-shocked parents preserves a sense of normalcy to their home, but limits her emotional intelligence; her blackly comic humor endears her to the adults in her world even as it alienates many of her peers. Woodley found endless gradients of wisdom, puerility, susceptibility and self-consciousness in The Spectacular Now (also penned by Neustadter and Weber), and here she achieves a similar feat, making Hazel into an absorbingly complex heroine rather than a disorienting, improbable one.
Hazel’s parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) are simultaneously grateful for and baffled by their daughter’s blasé demeanor (one of the film’s strengths is its quiet understanding of the terror and absurdity of raising a child fated to die) and encourage her to visit a cancer support group. It’s here that Hazel meets the improbably named Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an 18-year-old former basketball star whose prosthetic leg doesn’t prevent him from strutting as his primary form of transportation. Augustus is a somewhat impossible character, too High School Musical dreamy and far too optimistic considering his history, but Elgort’s chemistry with Woodley is strong, and the characters’ push-pull between fatalism and idealism as he aggressively courts her and she tentatively opens herself up to him gives the film neurotic energy to make up for the saccharine shadow cast by their illnesses.
Following their meet-cute, The Fault in Our Stars runs its course charting Hazel and Augustus’s relationship from its somewhat aimless beginnings, in which she resists getting close to him out of fear of hurting him, through health crises that serve as a form of bondage, and eventually across an ocean to Amsterdam in search of the reclusive (fictional) author of Hazel’s favorite novel. It’s in this middle passage of the film that The Fault in Our Stars succumbs most to triteness, thanks to an overly moralistic twist that sends Hazel and Augustus into an emotional tailspin. The remainder of their trip abroad is full of lessons learned and grand romantic gestures, ending on a mawkish note with a misjudged semi-climactic sequence combining two very dangerous thematic elements: strangers erupting into applause, and, um, the Anne Frank House.
The film regains its footing a bit in the emotional last act, in which cancer (and death) finally swallows all other narrative concerns: These sequences are mostly quieter, more focused on Hazel and Augustus, the minutiae of their relationship, and their potent chemistry. But the manipulative tactics at work in many of the explicitly illness-focused moments—unfortunate uses of slow-mo, syrupy music selections—still undermine Hazel’s opening bid for unfiltered, unpandering honesty. The film’s sharp tongue and youthful spirit are seductive, but these qualities are at odds with its tendency to sermonize and soften its own blows. It’s a film of disparate elements that fail to cohere: Like its protagonist, it’s prone to vacillate between intelligence and inanity, but unlike Hazel, it has little conviction to back up those vacillations.