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Crying time again as weepie makes a return to big screen

Dir:

sharing their thoughts: Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley star as the young cancer sufferers.
sharing their thoughts: Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley star as the young cancer sufferers.

Josh Boone

With: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern

Runtime: 140 minutes

WHERE did all the weepies go? In the first half of the last century they were as popular as bananas. Since then, bar the odd Love Story, a Marley & Me, or a Titanic, blubbing at the movies has largely gone the way of intermission choc ices and double features.

Today, unless it is a punter who has unwisely wandered into an Adam Sandler comedy, or someone who has realised, with an icy jolt, how much they have just spent on pick and mix, the cinema can be more or less guaranteed a sniffle free zone. What a dry-eyed lot we have become.

Valiantly bucking that trend is The Fault In Our Stars. Adapted from the best-selling novel by John Green, it stars Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Ansel Elgort (Carrie) as two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. Already, those of a cynical disposition, indeed anyone who does not warm to the thought of terminal illness being used for the purposes of entertainment, will be racing for the exits.

Hang on a moment, though, for there is more to Josh Boone's drama than its services to the paper tissue industry.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year-old who has had cancer for four years and is now in the later stages. She tries to lead as normal a life as possible, the only tells to her condition being the oxygen she has to wheel everywhere with her, and her careworn parents (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), a couple staring into an abyss of grief, all the while desperately trying to stay cheery for the sake of their daughter.

Pressed into going to a support group meeting for teenagers, Hazel meets Augustus (Elgort). Cancer in his leg has left Gus an amputee, or as he describes it, "part sideboard".

Though both share the same offbeat sense of humour, there is a firm divide between them. Gus wants his life to matter, to leave a legacy behind should the cancer come back and do its worse. Hazel Grace, in contrast, has been there and done that with such optimism and planning. She has long since come out the other side to a state of acceptance. Her chief concern now is what becomes of her parents after she has gone.

So we follow the couple as they grow closer, ever conscious of what must inevitably come next. What could be a painfully maudlin scenario is made bearable by the humour and brio with which it is played out. From the outset, it is clear Hazel Grace is a thoroughly Noughties kind of heroine, one who regards her cancer with a steady gaze and a ready quip. This is not the kind of movie, she warns us, where everything is going to be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song.

Gus matches her for wit, except in his case the lines are delivered with lots of shaggy appeal besides. He is a Labrador puppy to Hazel Grace's cool feline. Together, they make a highly attractive couple. Elgort is a natural born charmer, his wide open face made for the movie screen. Woodley, so impressive playing George Clooney's daughter in The Descendants, is intensely watchable in other ways, her obvious intelligence plain to see.

Throughout, wit is the not so secret weapon that rescues The Fault In Our Stars from mawkishness. While it does not succeed in doing so right to the end - there is no gag on earth that could lighten certain situations - it has a fine old go. If there is a wisecrack to be made about the state they are in, it will be Gus and Hazel Grace, or their similarly afflicted friend, who makes it.

Just to make matters more clear-eyed still, there is a spiky sub-plot involving Willem Dafoe as the reclusive author of a book that Hazel Grace adores. Dafoe, an actor as much at home in a Hollywood blockbuster as a Lars von Trier, shows himself once again to be full of surprises - much like this very modern weepie.

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