"The Fault in Our Stars" is extraordinary in so many ways. And in spite of its serious topic, which could have pushed the story into the chronic melodramatic, it is never maudlin.
At its center are two adolescents who together face their mortality, each having received at a very young age a diagnosis of cancer. What is remarkable about them — Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), 18, and Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), 16 — is that they possess a willful insouciance regarding how they approach their lives, lives which are haunted by the betrayal of their bodies, their days filled with an embedded uncertainty, unsure if their window of remission might abruptly close, thus giving concrete meaning to the word "terminal."
Of course, many of us have stopped and acknowledged that the world will indeed continue to move forward, though we will no longer be part of it. It can be an unsettling moment, in all its implications, buttressed perhaps by denial, a thought so abstract as to seem surreal. But for the young, in the grip of a vital and vibrant youthfulness, the idea of dying can only be contemplated as part of a distant future.
And yet Gus and Hazel Grace have left that teenage realm and are forced to deal with a far-different reality. Theirs is a world infused with a finality that is inescapable. Hazel has spent years of her life with the knowledge that her thyroid cancer, which has spread to her lungs, could be lethal. Now she must wear a plastic nose clip, the tubing, hooked up to an oxygen canister, one that she must take with her everywhere like carry-on luggage. Gus has lost a leg (he has a metal prosthetic) and nurtures a nugget of hope that he may indeed be in permanent remission.
Hazel and Gus meet in a survivor support group at the local church. Gus, who is perpetually and insistently optimistic, finds Hazel intriguing. She is defiantly not optimistic but also not depressed, as she explains to her mother (a wonderful Laura Dern) and her oncologist. Instead, she is realistic, to the point of harshness, about her future. And she is worried about her parents when she is gone.
What soon becomes evident is that both Gus and Hazel possess an unyielding courage that defines them. As anticipated, they are drawn to one another; although for Hazel it is with a sustained reluctance. She explains to Gus, "I'm a grenade. One day I'm going to explode, and I feel it's my responsibility to minimize the casualties."
And gradually, the film evolves from a narrative about brutal unfairness to a tender and touching love story.
Gus and Hazel Grace fall deeply in love, an emotion that ignites and embraces them while they are on an improbable journey to Amsterdam in search of Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of Hazel's favorite book, "An Imperial Affliction." What they discover when they finally meet the reclusive van Houten is that he is not the man they expected. He proves to be inhospitable and cruel to a fault.
Leaving van Houten, they visit the attic where Anne Frank hid with her family. After walking up several flights of steep stairs — for Hazel an ordeal — and surrounded by photographs of the smiling Anne, they kiss for the first time. It's a wonderful and symbolic moment, for it was Anne who, like them, was haunted by the possibility of not surviving and yet displayed an incandescent optimism about the future and about mankind, and, like them, possessed an unexpected courage.
Hazel, in voiceover, after their first kiss, says, "I fell in love the way you fall asleep. Slowly, then all at once."
Together, they come to understand that the most important thing that life can offer us is the opportunity to be loved and to love fully in return.
And therein is the power of this most-moving film: It is an affirmation, absent any self-destructive adolescent angst. And Woodley and Elgort are remarkable in their portrayals and get it just right.
As well, "The Fault in Our Stars" is based on the popular young-adult novel of the same name and its fealty to the book, according to its fans, like the movie, is remarkable.