Before a preview screening of the new movie The Fault in Our Stars, I noticed that each of the two people seated directly in front of me held a full box of tissues. It turns out they were mother and son.
The young man -- evidently brave enough to venture beyond Fault's predominantly female demographic -- had read the novel on which the movie is based. His mother hadn't. She'd been prepped, though, and was ready for the disturbingly sad parts of a teen romance about two kids with cancer.
I'd read about John Green's mega-bestseller, but hadn't read the book, so I let mother and her son serve as a kind of early warning system for me: I don't know if they each used an entire box of tissues, but they were smart to be ready.
The Fault in Our Stars is what my late mother's generation used to call a three-handkerchief movie, a description that needs no further elaboration.
But -- and it's a big but -- The Fault in Our Stars deserves credit for something it isn't; i.e., dumb and condescending.
Yes, these cancer suffers -- played by Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley -- are physically attractive. Yes, they're bright. And, yes, they seem to have been glamorized by director Josh Boone, who makes sure the love story powers the sometimes melancholy proceedings.
But The Fault in Our Stars earns the lump it puts in your throat, and it preserves what appear to be the more ambitious aims of Green's novel: Wondering about what happens after death (possibly nothing), maintaining a healthy skepticism about confessional behavior in a support group, acknowledging that there's no way around feeling some kinds of pain and admitting that we'll all be lucky if one or two people remember us when we're gone.
Woodley gives the movie its soul. Her character -- 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster -- narrates the story, thus preserving some of the novel's tone and voice.
Woodley, who also appeared in Fault screenwriters' Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's The Spectacular Now, brings intellignce and wit to Hazel Grace, who's learned not to be swept away by anyone's hollow bromides.
Elgort, who appeared with Woodley in Divergent, tends toward hunkiness: His character is less complex than Hazel Grace. His Augustus Waters is a former high school basketball star whose cancer cost him a leg, but who can seem far too good-spirited to be true.
Most of what transpires keeps close to teen realities - except possibly for a trip to Amsterdam engineered by Elgort's Augustus. The point of the travel: to visit Peter Van Houton (Willem Dafoe), the author of An Imperial Affliction, Hazel Grace's favorite novel.
Hazel Grace wants to ask deep questions about the ending of Van Houton's novel, but the author turns out to be a bitter drunk, a character who exists mostly to raise a cautionary point for young readers: Best not to confuse wisdom on the page with the character of the author.
Dafoe doesn't hold back when it comes to portraying Van Houton's cruelty, but the trip to Amsterdam makes room for other developments, including an unfortunate visit to the Anne Frank home, accompanied by voice-over readings from Frank's famous diary.
Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. She was 15. Bringing up Frank's story -- perhaps to amplify a point about embracing life amid abundant suffering -- seems too hard a tug at the heart strings, a needless exclamation point in a story that has plenty of its own emotional juice.
The story belongs to Woodley and Elgort, but the supporting cast adds flavor. Nat Wolff has a nice turn as August's friend Isaac, a teen-ager who has lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose another.
Laura Dern and Sam Trammel don't have a lot to do as Hazel Grace's parents, but the movie doesn't make buffoons out of them: They can't control a situation that's devastating for them.
Look, these cancer patients probably look a little too good for sick people, but one mustn't forget that The Fault in Our Stars makes no bones about being a Hollywood movie, and it will be seen by many who would shun a more aggressively realistic film.
Did the extended ending constitute a form of emotional piling on? Probably. Did I cry? No.
But here's the thing: I respect the tears of those who did -- and that's saying something.