07/01/2014 02:35 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2014

Dazzling Stars

Director John Ford said that good movies need three golden moments. The Fault in Our Stars, Josh Boone's splendidly well handled new film based on the book by John Green, has more than you can count in capturing the emotional vitality, humanity, and wit of the book, whose title comes from a line given to Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Anyone who has spent any time with Green, an original, brilliantly talented writer (who partners with his brother Hank, equally gifted, though in social media and technology rather than writing) recognizes the film's achievement in capturing his voice. Green was on set during filming, apparently a source of great reassurance to the cast, whose nuanced performances help bring the film alive.

The screen writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, merit great credit for off translating Green's book faithfully to create a highly cinematic experience. They enter a rarified circle of writers who have done as well.

Probably because Green's first three books were more clearly aimed at a Young Adult audience, his publisher, Penguin, placed this one there where it has justifiably earned a perch atop the New York Times' best seller list, but while younger viewers demonstrably love both the book and movie, make no mistake. This is a cross-over book - and film - that carries a universal appeal.

For those worried whether this reviewer will give away the story, relax. Go see the movie and find out for yourself. Broadly, the film is a character study of two teenagers struggling with Hazel's cancer and that which has stricken their friend Nat. It accomplishes this with a deft hand, focusing on their daily activities in dealing with their lives as they find love and, despite a brief life, manage to achieve a form of completion. Anyone who thinks this is easy need merely consider the plethora of Hollywood films that have tred on this treacherous territory and sank in a bog of maudlin, manipulative mush. This film is harrowing and emotionally powerful but never loses its deft touch.

Willem Dafoe's character, a stand-offish writer from Amsterdam named Van Houten, comes across as highly theatrical in a well-turned performance, but the other characters feel authentic and while nobody I know who's been burdened with cancer has managed to struggle through their lives with the humor that Hazel (Shailene Woodly) and Gus (Ansel Elgot) exhibit, their lines are natural. Woodly and Ansel deliver emotionally complex performances that touch the heart and enliven the mind. So much of what they talk about strikes home.

Their friend, Issac, whom Nat Wolff renders with verve and sensitivity, suffers from a form of cancer that costs him his eyes. His eyes are fine, he musedly observes, it's just that they are no longer with him. But when his girl friend breaks things off because she can't handle the situation, it strikes home. A close friend who survived cancer - and with a courage and fortitude that took my breath away as she walked across the coals of hell doing so - reported that one of the things that shocked her were the spouses who left their ailing wives or husbands. It was startling and disconcerting.

This film presents moment after moment that portrays our humanity. It reminds that life is extremely fragile, and confronting the mortal challenges that can blindside any of us from right angles is requires somehow summoning fortitude to deal with them. Hazel and Gus do that with poise and humor and by sharing their love. Movies that deal with these themes need a cast with strong screen chemistry. Everyone Boone cast shows it in spades. Laura Dern and Sam Trammel are the concerned parents whose cancer mortifies them. Dern's character spares no effort to support Hazel, and her acknowledgement of how she's dealing with Hazel's cancer is touching and wrenching. Art is notoriously difficult to define. Whatever it is, this film is an example of its highest expression.