The category of film known as the "teen weepie" is one of the hardest genres to make palatable to anyone outside its very specific target demographic (that is of course, young girls between the ages of 13 and 25), and to whatever end The Fault in Our Stars is at all successful, is almost entirely due to Shailene Woodley's sympathetic performance in the leading role.
I say this with some surprise, because in both previous movies I've seen her in (The Descendants and The Spectacular Now) I did not respond to her screen presence in any way, and thought she was sorely lacking in charisma. Here however, she really soars above the material, and is in fact, I would say the only reason to see this movie. It's not a terrible film, but the subject matter puts it at risk of cloying sentimentality and it comes with a certain level of built-in phoniness, no matter how goodhearted its intentions (look at us, we're terminal teens with cancer, but see how much fun we can make of our lives!). It's inevitable we're going to run into some corniness when we're dealing with two dying teenagers falling in love. But the first step is to at least try to have a couple of well written characters for the audience to get involved with.
Woodley is that character, playing 17-year-old Hazel Lancaster, who was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 13, and has become fairly cynical due to the toll its taken on her life (understandable), yet is still intelligent and courageous, with a curiosity about the world and a fierce determination of will and compassion for others, including her family members, whom she realizes may have it worse than herself when she eventually leaves this earth. She has an honest and great relationship with her mom (Laura Dern) and Shailene Woodley is completely natural, bright-eyed and authentic in the role at every turn, whether she's dealing with the physical effects of her illness, arguing her position on a book she loves, or facing the ramifications of her life on those around her, that I just wish she had been surrounded by a better movie. Hazel falls in love with a guy she meets at a cancer support group, a fellow patient played by Ansel Elgort (her Divergent co-star) but the big problem with this romance is that nothing about this kid strikes the same authentic chord that she does. He's nothing but a collection of arbitrary quirks and artificial dialogue, meant to seem eccentric in a endearing way I suppose, but played against Hazel's realism it comes across as unbearably irritating and overwritten. Even his name is phony- I mean, really, who names their son Augustus? Elgort is fine with what he's given, I just never bought into him as a real person, and so their relationship didn't hit the right tragic bone in me it was meant to.
There are a few good moments in here, scattered along the way of a contrived storyline that involves Hazel and Augustus going on a journey to Amsterdam to meet the author of her favorite book (Willem Dafoe in a scene-stealing cameo, as usual), but the last third of the movie drags, as the predictable twist involving who really dies in the film brings everything around (and slowly) to its inevitable, tearjerking ending. But Woodley holds our attention through all the cliches, bringing life and energy to a movie that might otherwise be unwatchable without her. Her brief scenes with Laura Dern are good enough that I found myself wishing this had been a story about how a mother deals with the premature death of her daughter from cancer, instead of the cheesy Love Story remake that's been done so many times. Although, with movies like this, you do have to remember who they're for, and that target audience I referenced earlier will undoubtedly eat this up, and hey, they could certainly do worse. Anybody remember A Walk to Remember with Mandy Moore? Yeah, I'd say this is better than that. It's a perfectly serviceable teen melodrama with a refreshingly original female character in the lead- I just wish the script had been a little more up to par with the talents of its star.
* * 1/2