In my 12 years as a film critic and a lifetime of going to the movies, I’ve never heard an audience collectively weep the way it did during The Fault in Our Stars. We’re talking legitimately audible sobbing, so much that some audience members started laughing because of all the crying.

It would have been easy for the film, based on a hit novel of the same name by John Green, to be a manipulative and contrived tearjerker. You know the type: The melodrama that lacks story but features plenty of awful things happening to good people, thereby attempting to make you shriek for the plight of others. The Fault in Our Stars in contrast, earns its sobs by developing the characters in a likeable, realistic way and not cutting any corners in their story of genuine heartache.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a terminally ill teenager with thyroid and lung cancer. She carries an oxygen tank everywhere she goes, and at any moment her lungs could fill with fluid and need to be drained. “Depression is not a side effect of cancer — it’s a side effect of dying,” Hazel says during the film’s shaky start, and understandably so.

To lift her mood her parents (a spirited Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) force her to go to a support group for sick teens. There she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), or Gus, a cocky 18-year-old who takes an instant liking to Hazel. He comes on strong at first — “I enjoy looking at beautiful people,” he tells her — but soon the kindred spirits develop an affinity for one another’s company, which grows into love.

Director Josh Boone and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber patiently — and impressively — move the story forward. The natural (i.e. Hollywood) inclination would’ve been to have them fall in love sooner, play up the romance, and then let the ending play out as it does. But by taking a slower tact — no doubt insisted upon by Green, who was often on set during production but did not write the screenplay — Boone very effectively allows us to share Hazel and Gus’ connection and watch their love grow. In many ways it evolves like a typical teenage romance, which is part of what makes the movie so pleasing. These are two kids falling in love for the first time, not two young cancer patients who find one another and wait to die together. And it feels real, not contrived and unnecessarily melodramatic.

Of course, all of this would be moot without strong performances. Woodley (Divergent, The Descendants) shines as Hazel, instantly and easily allowing us to sympathize with and root for her. (Side note: Woodley was not initially considered for the role. She wrote passionate letters to Green and Boone just to be considered, then made them cry during her audition. The role was “hers from that moment on,” Green said.) We know her disease is incurable, so we feel urgency for her to be as happy as she can for as long as possible, and her glow opposite Elgort’s Gus is unmistakable. Despite the arrogant nature of Gus at first, we grow to like him as his honest and frank affection lifts Hazel from her depression and allows her/them to enjoy everything they can together. It’s a truly moving, inspiring relationship, and Woodley and Elgort deserve ample credit for superbly bringing it to life.

Being terminally ill when you discover love is horribly unfair — one of the inexplicable cruel jokes life plays that test one’s resolve, character, and fortitude in a variety of ways. One of the messages of the film is that sometimes we have to accept the best of what life offers, because another cruel joke could come at any time. Words to live by to be sure, and certainly doable.

Cinematic adaptations of beloved novels can easily go astray, but (having not read the book) I’m told this is a faithful adaptation. However, you certainly don’t need to have read it to understand the depth, nuance, and beauty of The Fault in Our Stars because it truly is a wonderfully told story about love and embracing life.

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