"I'm a grenade," terminally ill teen Hazel explains, "and at some point, I'm going to explode. ... It's my responsibility to minimize the casualties." But besotted Augustus is willing to risk any collateral damage. That's love, life, death and life-after-a-death, all wrapped up in the sweet-and-sad dramedy The Fault in Our Stars, Josh Boone's adaptation of John Green's best-selling young-adult novel.
In Indianapolis (played by Pittsburgh), Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort) meet in a support group for teen cancer survivors. They banter, flirt and debate Hazel's favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, a novel about Anna, a young girl with cancer, that ends in midsentence. Hazel understands — "you die in the middle of life" — but she longs to learn what becomes of those left in Anna's wake. So, between health crises, the pair journey to Amsterdam to meet the novel's reclusive author (Willem Dafoe).
Hazel worries about her grenade status: It's the root of her ironic detachment, and choosing whether to love and be loved is her greatest leap. Gus fears "oblivion," that his life will go unmarked. Despite its heavy themes, this is a work created for young adults that just happened to find an audience with adults as well, so one must be forgiving of some of Fault's obviousness. (Kids: Is it better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all?)
The film is faithful to the book, if truncated. The biggest departure might be that there's not much attempt to impose the ugly physical realities of terminal illness on these vibrant, glowing actors, but this is hardly the first Hollywood film about dying young to favor beauty over truth. I can't imagine anyone who loved the book not loving this film, despite some of its missteps. (I would watch this again just for Laura Dern's warm-but-emotionally-raw portrayal of Hazel's mom.)
Woodley cries wonderfully, but isn't as convincing in humorous scenes. Elgort is better at being glib than at conveying more complex emotions like love, anger and sorrow. If one was being charitable, these limitations could be excused considering that many real-life teenagers find communication tricky. Augustus' big scenes are like watching a puppy cry — more adorable than heart-wrenching — but it should go over gangbusters with younger and more sentimental viewers.
It's no spoiler to say Fault doesn't end fairy-tale happy; we're told that from the start. ("This is the truth. Sorry.") And yes, there was a lot of sniffling throughout the final reel. If you're prone to tears, wear something waterproof.