Despite the way death and cancer gnaw at "The Fault in Our Stars," the new teenage love story starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort is really about living. Or as Tim McGraw put it in the classic country song, live like you were dying — good advice, since we all are.
There's plenty of romance too. And for that the timing couldn't be better. We're in the midst of a romantic movie drought — certainly for the teenage crowd — and "Fault" is about as hearts-and-flowers as it gets. There are stolen kisses, longing looks and gauzy montages all set to mood-appropriate alt-rock. Indie "It boy" Ed Sheeran is behind the title track.
Even though an unhappy ending is a given, "Fault" is no pity party. Pragmatism was part of the appeal of John Green's bestselling novel on which the film is based. Director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the writing pair responsible for the lovely hipster romance "(500) Days of Summer" — stick closely to the story and the sensibility, which should please the book's fans.
Like its cancer kids, "Fault" has good and bad moments. What sustains the film through the rockier times are its challenging themes, offering real issues for the young protagonists to wrestle with, rather than whether anyone will be carded trying to buy beer.
Woodley and Elgort play the hand they're dealt well, balancing the sentiment with a good deal of teenage moxie. Make no mistake, "Fault" is a certifiable weepie, but it comes by most of its emotions honestly. Boone uses plausible situations to stir up feelings, without the heart-tugging calculation that brings so many tear-jerkers down. For our doomed young lovers, cancer is just another teenage problem to deal with, no excuse for schmaltz.
Still, 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is more aware of death than most. She knows her expiration date is coming soon; the lung disease that's shaped her life and now ties her to an oxygen tank is never stable long.
The requisite rom-dram "meet sweet" happens at a cancer support group for teens. Good-looking, with an irresistible smile and healthy skepticism, 18-year-old Gus Waters (Elgort) shows up with his best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). Gus is in remission — it's Isaac's eyes that are under attack. But the disease has taken a bite out of Gus too. The one-time athlete now has a prosthetic leg he's still learning to control.
The spark and the snark that pass between Hazel and Gus are immediate and set the tone.
A stare-down between the teens — Gus amused, Hazel defiant — comes next. They start seriously bonding around the share circle run by slightly older cancer survivor Patrick (Mike Birbiglia) — the endless string of eye-rolling affirmations Patrick offers up and the pair's spirited confrontation on the subject of oblivion seal the deal. They're not so much cynical as realistic.
Within the typically angst-filled world of a teenager who happens to also have cancer, "Fault" is smarter-than-average as it works its way through one issue after another: first love, first sex, rebellion, identity, the disease, etc. It helps that much of "Fault" turns on Hazel's obsession with a novel about death. Literary underpinnings, even fictitious ones, tend to elevate the debate.
"An Imperial Affliction," the only book written by a reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), ends frustratingly mid-sentence. Hazel has written countless letters trying to get the author to tell her how things work out for the surviving characters. A nice way of letting us know Hazel has accepted her own fate, but worries what her death will mean for those left behind.
Being the perfect boyfriend, Gus tracks down Van Houten to try to get Hazel Grace, as he calls her, the answers. That becomes "The Fault's" engine, one that sends the teens on one of those "last wish" journeys to Amsterdam, to Van Houten's door and through a series of mettle-testing highs and lows.
Paying attention to what happens in the margins keeps "Fault" from falling completely in the mush pit. Like an ordinary kid, Hazel worries when Gus doesn't text or call after their first date. Gus insists on driving, even though his leg makes it a hazardous affair. They rebel against convention, type-casting and their parents, though with a kind of tenderness that comes in understanding the burden of their illness. And they relate — to the world, their condition and each other — in believable ways. The dialogue is clever without being pretentious.
This is Boone's second film. His first, "Stuck in Love," starred Greg Kinnear as a writer trying to reassemble his fractured family; it made a brief appearance last year before going to DVD. Though the film didn't always work, what it did exhibit was Boone's light touch with human failings. You can sense an empathy for the capriciousness of life in his work. It softens harsh edges, it brings out a purity of emotions in his actors. "Fault" is better for it.
Laura Dern is particularly affecting as Frannie, Hazel's mother, trying to live with short-term hope: One more good day. Then another if they're lucky. Humor is woven through, the cancer jokes and blind jokes pointed but not caustic. Wolff provides much of the comic relief — Isaac throwing a trophy-smashing tantrum after a breakup is a good start for an even funnier blind bit to come. They laugh so that you can.
Elgort is pretty adorable as Gus, the actor exhibiting leading guy potential. The chemistry he and Woodley share seems very organic, some of it no doubt rooted in time spent together on "Divergent," in which he played her brother. Elgort has a very appealing way of making sure Gus' confidence stops just short of cocky.
But Woodley is the one who binds the film together, heals all of its wounds. She gives Hazel the right level of strength and vulnerability, resistance and acceptance, to create a real girl living in a real world. It allows you to feel Hazel's struggle and mourn her fate, but save your pity for someone else.
'The Fault in Our Stars'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In general release