‘The Fault in Our Stars’: A lovely work led by the transcendent Shailene Woodley

By RICHARD ROEPER Movie Columnist

June 4, 2014 8:20PM

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Updated: July 7, 2014 6:17AM

After having the privilege of witnessing Shailene Woodley’s transcendent, pure and authentic performance in “The Fault in Our Stars,” I believe there are now only four slots available in the category of Best Performance by An Actress in a Lead role. She’s that memorable.

Cheers to a film in which the female teenage protagonist isn’t a mutant, an animated princess, a vampire, in love with a vampire or a boy-crazed rebel plotting the spring break of her lifetime. Woodley’s Hazel Lancaster is a superhero of a different kind. She’s a girl who was diagnosed with cancer at 13, miraculously survived, but still literally can’t breathe without her oxygen tank.

The many avid fans of John Green’s novel know this is a tearjerker with more than a few twists, some slaps in the face of conventional storytelling and a poetic but realistic take on the glory and the unfairness of life. Director Josh Boone does a wonderful job of celebrating the sentimentality without shying away from the tough moments. The pacing, music and editing are all first-rate.

Ansel Elgort, who played Woodley’s brother in “Divergent,” is Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor who lost one leg below the knee. Augustus is a bit much at times, the kind of charmer who makes a girl swoon and makes her parents roll their eyes at his admittedly sincere but non-stop ain’t-I-something moves. Although at times at bit too CW-hunk with his boy-band good looks, his mannerisms and delivery, Elgort does a fine job, and he finds some good rhythms in the many scenes where it’s just him and Woodley, becoming friends and then maybe something more.

Nat Wolff is a terrific comic foil as Augustus best friend Isaac, who’s going blind from his cancer. (She met the two of them at a support group. One of your darker meet-cutes.) And Laura Dern does a magnificent job of capturing the life of a mother who spends nearly every waking and sleeping moment on edge, awaiting the next setback for her daughter.

Hazel is obsessed with a novel by a reclusive author played by Willem Dafoe. She loves the book but she has questions about what happens to the characters after the narrator dies; obviously Hazel has these same questions about what will happen to the people she loves after she’s gone.

There’s a pilgrimage to Amsterdam where many things happen, none of them what you might expect if you haven’t read the book. During this segment, “The Fault in Our Stars” tests the limits of our willingness to give our hearts to this story. With lesser source material, an average director and an OK cast, the film could have lost me. But everyone involved in this project has talents way beyond the average or even the simply good.

In films such as “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” it was immediately apparent Shailene Woodley had the kind of natural talent that’s rare for an actress of any age. Sure, she’s a beautiful girl, but in a natural way where you can see her playing the girl who gets the guy, or the wisecracking best friend. Every line of dialogue she says in this film sounds as if we’re eavesdropping on a real life. Even when we’re just watching her face as she’s texting with Augustus, there’s no evidence of capital letters ACTING. And that’s certainly true when she’s going through some unbearable pain, physical and of the heart.

With a running time just over two hours, “The Fault in Our Stars” might have been even more effective with just a little judicious trimming, especially in the final act. But by that point I was more than willing to indulge these characters and their story just a little bit longer. Led by the unforgettable work from a young actress who’s among the best of her generation, “The Fault in Our Stars” is a lovely work.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper

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