updated 06/06/2014 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 06/06/2014 AT 2:15 PM ET
Based on John Green’s ginormously popular YA novel, this is a sweet, simple, dignified movie about young lovers whose every move is chaperoned by death.
It seems safe to say that it will have millions of people verklempt between now and forever.
When they meet in a cancer support group, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) share a sense of gallows humor, but she considers her foreshortened life with pointed intensity, and he stays afloat (sometimes desperately) with gallant charm. Where they connect – and the pair do connect, wholly – is on a level of existential and romantic bliss.
The amazing thing is that the audience is transported there, too, for a time. And then …
It would be unfair to reveal more of the story than that, even if the book’s huge readership knows the outcome and will probably be wet-eyed even while ordering tickets on Fandango.
At any rate, fans will find little to complain about in this adaptation. (If they do, they’re silly.) Hazel’s voiceover narration in the movie doesn’t capture wholly the extremely precise tone of the book’s Hazel: A sort of calculated lack of affect combined with deadpan humor, somewhere between Holden Caulfield and Hemingway, and absolutely right for a teenager who has spent years living with her cancer. The early Scarlett Johannson, the one in Ghost World, would have been perfect.
But the 22-year-old Woodley is flawless: natural, grounded, smart, with alert eyes, just enough edge and a readiness to yield to happiness when it arrives in the form of Ansel Elgort (who’s 20). She is terrific.
Elgort’s performance is launched as a major charm offensive and, if it had been sustained at that level, would have been exhausting. But his boyish handsomeness doesn’t keep him from being awkward and vulnerable – from some angles, he suggests a more strapping Michael Cera – and the dominant element becomes a powerful tenderness.
Together, he and Woodley make one of the most believable couples to turn up on a movie screen in years.
In a scene that could have played very badly, they share their first kiss in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam – and the tourists surrounding them, rather than thinking this is what you should expect of a nation that previously sent over Justin Bieber, burst into applause and shouts of “bravo.”
You agree with them: We’ve reached this moment watching Hazel lug her oxygen tank up flight after flight of narrow stairs as Augustus worries for her – and all the while we’re aware of Frank’s words about life and death and hope. It’s a validation, not a blasphemy. It’s Woodley and Ansort who make it so.
I do have several problems with the movie, but as soon as I propose them I will for the most part withdraw them.