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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Cancer looms over two teenagers in The Fault in Our Stars
First love, last love
The story unfolds slowly and sweetly.
The story unfolds slowly and sweetly.

Teenagers are prone to hyperbole, but when 16-year-old Hazel calls herself a grenade in The Fault in Our Stars, she's not far off the mark. Diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in her early teens, she (Shailene Woodley) has gained a few years with the aid of an experimental drug, but she's still a terminal case. Hazel worries about her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell), who will inevitably survive her, and she wears the burden of that worry as heavily as the oxygen tank she must lug around. And though she attends a weekly cancer support group, she doesn't want to let others in because she's trying to minimize the collateral damage of her coming death.

Gus (Ansel Elgort) is more foolhardy, or romantic, or maybe just seize-the-day sensible. An 18-year-old cancer survivor with only one leg, he doggedly ignores Hazel's efforts to keep him in the friend zone. That they'll fall in love is a foregone conclusion, even for those who haven't gulped John Green's gorgeous source novel. Director Josh Boone announces the relationship at the start of the film, in a flash-forward montage that plays like an early valentine to diehard fans twitching for that first kiss. What's more striking is the film's tender chronicling of the young couple's new love, a first love that will likely be their last.

Woodley and Elgort look like real teens thanks, in part, to their body language. She lights up when receiving a text message, thinking she's playing it cool, but her parents can see her giddiness. He postures hard, using an unlit cigarette as a metaphor for staring down death. Elgort's performance is more mannered than Woodley's open-faced, direct line to the heart, but it works. His speeches sometimes tumble out in a mush-mouthed rush, a little over-rehearsed, and that feels true to a teenager who is terribly sweet, eager to please, and gaga about a very special girl.

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber tone down the spikiness that made Hazel's voice so winning in Green's novel, and her inner monologue is translated to screen through a gauzier voiceover. After a slow, sweet build to an adventure in Amsterdam, the film plateaus dramatically. If you're looking for an anthemic romance, The Fault in Our Stars falls short. The film instead has a gentle spirit; it makes no sudden movements. It's also bundled in kindness, and that's nothing to shrug at. Green's book made a point of underscoring what a privilege it is to love someone -- in particular to do the loving -- and the film adaptation illustrates that sentiment beautifully.

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