It would be easy to dismiss “The Fault in Our Stars,” the movie based on John Green’s novel, as romanticized claptrap — a young-adult wallow about absurdly pretty people facing terminal illness, a story that does for cancer what “Twilight” did for vampires.
But that cynical pre-assessment doesn’t take into account the movie itself, which is at once astringently clear-eyed and big-heartedly earnest.
A lot of that clear-eyed earnestness comes courtesy of star Shailene Woodley (“Divergent”), who plays the film’s heroine, Hazel Grace Lancaster. Hazel is 17 and has spent the past four years battling cancer — first in her thyroid gland and now in her lungs. She lugs an oxygen tank wherever she goes around Indianapolis, including her reluctant visits to a cancer support group.
At one support-group meeting, she meets Augustus Waters (Alson Elgort, who played Woodley’s brother in “Divergent” — but try not to think about that). Augustus is 18 and lost his right leg to cancer, so he now wears a metal prosthetic leg.
Hazel and Augustus hit it off immediately, at first bonding over their shared distaste for support-group neediness. A fast friendship and flirtation soon develop, though Hazel tries to avoid a deeper relationship because she knows her days are numbered.
“I’m a grenade,” Hazel tells Augustus. “One day I’m going to blow up and I’m going to obliterate everything in my wake, and I don’t want to hurt you.”
Augustus persists, as he arranges for the pair — along with Hazel’s always-anxious mom (Laura Dern) — to visit Amsterdam, to meet the reclusive author of Hazel’s favorite book. The author is played by Willem Dafoe, who does more than anyone onscreen to blowtorch through the sentimentalism that would otherwise smother this story. (A close second is Nat Wolff, who plays Augustus’ best friend Isaac, who loses both eyes to cancer.)
Laboring furiously offscreen to keep the mawkishness at bay are the screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the team who wrote the deconstructed romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer” and the teen alcoholism drama “The Spectacular Now” (which also starred Woodley).
Neustadter and Weber keep some of Green’s signature lines, such as when Hazel compares falling in love to “the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” But they also work to show Hazel’s grim determination not to become pitied or helpless — such as when she must navigate the steep stairs in the Anne Frank House, turning a scene that could have been overwrought (and borderline offensive) into a moment of personal triumph.
Director Josh Boone (“Stuck in Love”) occasionally veers toward the syrupy, particularly with his emo-heavy soundtrack choices. But ultimately, “The Fault in Our Stars” overcomes those faults because of Woodley, who uses her instincts and abundant talent to depict Hazel as a fully realized young woman who’s more than just the sum of her symptoms.
‘The Fault in Our Stars’
Shailene Woodley shines as an optimistic cancer patient in a well-told adaptation of John Green’s best-selling novel.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language.
Running time • 125 minutes.