June 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

Review: Strong performances and charm help 'Fault in Our Stars' tackle tough issues

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort star as people who have survived cancer and are attracted to each other in 'The Fault in Our Stars.' (James Bridges / Twentieth Century Fox)

Bring tissues. Lots of them.

But don’t expect to feel guilty about the tears. “The Fault in Our Stars” earns its emotional kick. More importantly, it balances the wrenching parts with plenty of easy charm and humor.

The movie has its problems — it’s almost too charming for one thing. But the honest, human performances from stars Ansel Elgort and especially Shailene Woodley keep it grounded, even when things start to wander or threaten to get too precious.

On the off chance you haven’t heard, “Fault” is about two teenagers who’ve had cancer. Gus (Elgort) has lost half a leg to the disease. Hazel (or Hazel Grace, as Gus would say) walks around with an oxygen tank and plastic tubing in her nose.

She almost died from a lung condition when she was younger; miraculously she survived. But the cancer could come back with a vengeance anytime.

They meet at a church support group. Gus comes with his buddy, Isaac (Nat Wolff), a guy who’s just about to lose his one good eye to the disease. Hazel is forced to attend by her hovering, loving mother (Laura Dern, bringing it). Their eyes meet and that’s about it.

Gus and Hazel become good friends, but Hazel realizes she needs to stop it there. Gus appears to be cancer-free, after all, and she almost surely comes with an early expiration date.

So they live cute, with death always looming nearby. Hazel is obsessed with a book by a reclusive author (Willem Dafoe) who lives in Amsterdam. Gus contacts the man via email and that leads to an extraordinary journey, some personal disappointments and tragic news. Then the tough stuff gets going.

There are plenty of holes here. Sure Hazel has been isolated by her condition, but why does she have absolutely no friends? She’s supposedly going to college, but she never cracks open a book. And Gus seems to be spending his life doing nothing, which is a bit curious since his goal is to leave his mark on the world.

Whenever a storyteller is at a loss, the easiest move is to take a road trip: hence Amsterdam. And the film’s ending hinges on a chance remark.

Still, it’s easy to see why John Green’s book was such a smash, and the screenwriting team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer,” “The Spectacular Now”), along with director Josh Boone (“Stuck in Love”), keep the focus on this witty young couple who are in love the way most of us wish we could be — except for the death thing.

Elgort plays Gus as a wounded wit, ever bouncing back. And Woodley gives Hazel a steely determination that still gives in to romantic notions. There is never any question that this is a tragedy, yet there are smiles aplenty.

It’s rare to find a high profile outright drama mixed in among the summer bombast at movie theaters. Let’s hope “The Fault in Our Stars” shows audiences want more than explosions and aliens. It certainly shows that juxtaposing young romance and mortality will forever be fertile dramatic ground. Romeo and Juliet, meet Hazel and Gus.

‘The Fault in Our Stars’

GRADE: B
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language
Running time: 125 minutes

tlong@detroitnews.com
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