It’s no small praise to say that The Fault in Our Stars has not spoiled a literary property pre-sold to all the 12-year-old girls in America. These fans of John Green’s much-admired novel may be shorter and squeakier than the readers who awaited Gone With the Wind, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less demanding.
To succeed with them, The Fault in Our Stars needed its own Vivien Leigh. It got her in Shailene Woodley, who currently reigns as supreme princess of young-adult film. In a single year, she has starred as the bravely unsentimental, cancer-stricken protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars and also as the heroine of her own futuristic action franchise, the Divergent series. The feat suggests a range, and an abrupt rise, reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence—although Woodley, who is all of one year younger than Lawrence by the calendar, seems on the screen to be her junior by a decade in terms of sexual experience and force of character. Not that I’d rush to put limits on Woodley’s talent, but so far directors have found it useful to play up the slightness of her physique—she persists, rather than prevails, in the fist fights in Divergent—and the somewhat gawky prettiness of her almond-eyed, chewy-lipped features. Woodley comes off as a watchfully intelligent young woman who doubts herself as much as she challenges others and is still quivering on the verge of her first real kiss—a figure, in short, in whom America’s 12-year-old girls can imagine themselves without strain as they dream about the movie’s Clark Gable equivalent.
As embodied in Ansel Elgort, he has the looks and cockiness of a high-school sports star and the allure of a leather-jacketed biker with a cigarette clenched in his teeth—but the cigarette is never lit, the manner is polite to the point of courtliness, and the athletic triumphs are all in the past, now that cancer has cost him a leg. Elgort’s character is, in short, the most tragically vulnerable hunk a girl ever imagined, even a girl who always has an oxygen tube stuck in her nose.
Following a practice as long established as it is effective, The Fault in Our Stars delivers its blows and softens them in a single gesture. It is a fable about daring to love intensely under cruel and hopeless circumstances, as well as a fantasy about winning a thrilling boyfriend who is completely unthreatening. Not to argue with success, but I think Josh Boone’s direction tilts a bit too much toward the second agenda. Moments of pain go unplumbed, as when the mother (played by Laura Dern) must deny her daughter a deeply held but expensive wish, and the scene stays single-mindedly focused on the girl’s disappointment. A better director would have paused to suggest the sense of failure that the mother must feel. A very good director, moving to the next beat, would also have shown the girl recognizing her mother’s emotions; but that’s too much trouble for Boone. If he can cue the audience to feel good, though, Boone will do it every time. When the young couple, on a trip to Amsterdam, visit the Anne Frank House, the girl struggles up flight after flight of stairs with a determination that is convincing and ultimately moving; and when she finally attains the attic, her fatigue, relief and awe at the surroundings push her at last into the boy’s arms. It’s a plausible, touching moment—or it would have been, if Boone hadn’t decided that all the other people in the attic ought to forget about Anne Frank and instead applaud the cute kids.