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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Fault in Our Stars': Teen tissue alert

2 photos photo - Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort star in "The Fault in Our Stars." Courtesy Temple Hill Entertainment. + caption
Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort star in "The Fault in Our Stars." Courtesy Temple Hill Entertainment.
By Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle Updated: June 5, 2014 at 11:38 am

Drama. Starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. Directed by Josh Boone. (PG-13. 125 minutes.)

REVIEW: 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 STARS

It's hard to be definitive about "The Fault in Our Stars." It's exploitative in the most obvious ways, and yet sincere. It's a product of sophisticated market calculation, and yet artless in its immediacy. It's nothing you'd ever want to put yourself through twice, and yet it's effective in the moment. Shrewdly prefabricated and yet lovingly assembled, it is, in short, the most beautifully-made cynical thing I've ever seen.

So what do you say about a movie like that? If films were like mathematics, you'd take an average of "almost great" and "almost awful" and end up with "fair" or "just OK." But "The Fault in Our Stars," based on John Green's novel, is the furthest thing from fair or OK. It really is almost great and almost awful interchangeably, sometimes simultaneously. Manipulative in the worst way, it's also manipulative in the best way, so that, in order to be unmoved by it, you would have to try actively to be a jerk. Go in with anything short of willful disengagement, and you will be swept up -- at times.

A love story about two teenagers with cancer, the title comes from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," but the action is more like "Romeo and Juliet" -- a tale of first love in all its passions, only with cancer replacing the Capulet-Montague conflict. Shailene Woodley is Hazel, whose thyroid cancer has become lung cancer. She's 17 and goes around rolling an oxygen tank behind her, but at the moment, her condition is stable.

At a cancer support group, she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), who is at least as handsome as the two guys in "Twilight," and also acerbic and unshakably confident, despite having lost a leg to the disease. In remission, he's at the meeting in support of a friend, but as soon as he sees Hazel, he's in love. Following the familiar pattern of stories directed at girls, he thinks Hazel is beautiful, knows how amazingly awesome she is, but makes no physical demands. He is willing to wait around and be charming.

If the above sounds formulaic and calculated, other elements don't. At one point, early in the story, Hazel is presented with an opportunity to fulfill a life dream, to travel to Amsterdam and meet her favorite author. But it's touch and go whether her health will allow for such a trip. The emotion attached to this is enormous, and not just for the characters. It feels like an oppressive cruelty that this should even be a question -- that a 17-year-old kid might not survive a plane ride -- and if you see "The Fault in Our Stars," you will want that girl to have that experience more than you can possibly imagine.

Such is the pattern throughout -- scenes of calculated banter, with phony interactions that feel straight out of some routine product, followed by moments of universal truth and aching power. The story can be out-guessed within five minutes, at least in its broad outlines, and yet its many details are often surprising and illuminating. The plotline involving Hazel's dealing with her favorite author (Willem Dafoe) is particularly strong in the way it highlights her growth.

Woodley starts slow, in what seems like a largely reactive role, but as the movie wears on, her performance deepens. At times, she has a quality of looking like both a young girl and an old lady, as if she has crammed a lifetime's worth of maturity into just a few years. In a key scene, she has a speech, in which she tells Augustus everything he means to her, which she does with such simplicity and a fullness of feeling that it's wondrous. There's no minimizing that: It's a beautiful moment.

She is well matched by Elgort, who is no mere abstraction of a teenage girl's dream, but brings to Augustus a tangle of interesting and conflicting qualities. He is cocky and egotistical, but genuinely warm; clearly a kid going places, and yet vulnerable in surprising ways. If Woodley shows us the adult within the teenager, Elgort's journey is to show us the kid within the adult facade.

The quality of the acting and the rightness of Woodley and Elgort as a couple are major weights to put into the balance. And when you add in the movie's unwillingness to sugarcoat the awfulness of what its protagonists are facing, "The Fault in Our Stars" has to be considered some kind of good movie. And so I've given it some kind of good review.

Still, I wonder -- why do I feel as I've just been rolled?

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.

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