In theaters Friday, June 6
3 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
There will be sobs.
But don't dismiss this drama as a chick-flick tearjerker.
That only trivializes a refreshingly witty and tender romance for the ages. One that, despite its few flaws, will be cued up over and over even though that ending will never change. Scratch that. It will be cued up over and over because that ending will never change.
Fans of John Green's 2012 bestseller know all this already — and they'll delight in this extremely faithful adaptation. But for those who found the book somewhat cloying (cough, cough), this film still succeeds on several levels. An excellent, star-cementing cast has that kind of effect.
Start with Shailene Woodley. She's Hazel Grace, a cynical, introverted 16-year-old with a rare form of cancer that requires a breathing tube. She'd rather sit in her room and read her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, than socialize. To appease her parents (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), she begrudgingly goes to a support group for fellow cancer patients. That's where she sees him. A strikingly good looking high school senior and cancer survivor named Gus (Ansel Elgort). He's cocky and has the moxie to unabashedly stare at her in the group then invite her on the spot to go home and watch a movie in his parents' basement. Smooth.
Hazel Grace behaves like most teen girls (and some adults, for that matter) on the cusp of a potentially big love: She holds vigil by her iPhone waiting for Gus to text her after their first date, gets antsy when he doesn't, smiles when he does, then amps up her finest flirtatious banter to seal the deal. (The two decide quickly that their special word will be "okay.") Soon, the pair form an old-soul kinship — and not just because of their illnesses. During picnics, for instance, they speak about her favorite novel and plot how to meet its reclusive, Amsterdam-living author, Peter Van Houton, with a wry insight. They meditate on mortality without precious sentiment. (Not too much, anyway.) Gus doesn't just want to know the meaning of life, he longs for his life to have purpose in the world. We've come a long way since A Walk to Remember, everyone.
Smart, rapid-fire dialogue is a plus, but let's get real: This is the kind of story that hinges on the chemistry of the leads. And fortunately, Woodley and Elgort's connection lights up the screen. Thanks to her warm smiles and his unflappable confidence, it's easy to see why the two care so deeply for each other. Together, they sell their soul mate status and they do it with impressive emotional maturity. When they finally kiss, it's well earned. (Though the site of said kiss remains grossly inappropriate. What was Green thinking??!!!).
A word here about Elgort. A relative unknown who, uh, played Woodley's brother in Divergent, the doe-eyed star is bound to reach R-Patz-like heartthrob status. And judging by the decibel-breaking screaming that greeted him when he ambled into the movie theater at the end of this particular NYC screening, the actor may be already there. He's, like, soooo dreamy.
Hazel Grace and Gus are dealt a major setback, of course. And it's essentially and admittedly a long, shameless Kleenex-fest. Yet the film goes to great lengths to mix comedy with the pathos, illustrating that life does indeed go on — and loved ones will be "okay" — even under the worst of circumstances. Despite the tears, audiences will leave with their hearts full of love.
See? You don't always need vampires and factions to show teens in all their angst-filled, acid-tongued and hopeful glory.