Every generation has to have its “Love Story” — a Kleenex-wadding weepie about romance, illness, and fate — and “The Fault in Our Stars” is just the latest iteration. This is about more than having a good cry. It’s a way for younger moviegoers to confront the (for them) abstract concept of death and come out feeling more alive. A movie like this doesn’t have to be good. It just has to work.
Intelligent and earnest, “The Fault in Our Stars” works well enough to keep a doubter from feeling mugged by sentiment. Adapted from the best-selling young-adult novel by John Green (which itself was inspired by the life and writings of Quincy teen Esther Earl, who died in 2010), the movie stars Shailene Woodley as Hazel Lancaster and Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters, both survivors of the cancer wars.
Hazel’s voiceover tells us right off the bat that this won’t be like a Hollywood movie on the subject, that “this is the truth.” It’s an odd bit of defensive posturing — of course this is a Hollywood movie, with hairloss-free chemo and other prettifications — and in any event the truthiness of “The Fault in Our Stars” extends mostly to its medical-speak. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, while the thyroid cancer that almost killed Hazel when she was 13 has, four years later, spread to her lungs and temporarily stabilized. In an early support-group scene, teenagers introduce themselves by name and diagnosis, the syllables tripping off their tongues with weary familiarity. We’re a long way from Ali McGraw dying of Mysterious Movie Wasting Disease in 1970’s “Love Story.”
The other aspect that “The Fault in Our Stars” works hard to get right is Hazel’s relationship with her parents, in particular her mother, Frannie, who’s played with heartbreaking finesse by Laura Dern. The script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber delicately separates strands of guilt, protectiveness, enablement, terror, and works its way toward a center of maternal love that the actress renders with a glow.
The main order of business, obviously, is the romance between a proud, reclusive girl and a cocky, secretly scared young guy. After meeting in group, Gus sweeps Hazel off her feet with an off-center confidence that’s as engaging to the audience as it is new to her. They bond over her favorite novel, an artful tale of cancer written by Peter Van Houten, an American expatriate living in Amsterdam. When Gus dares to contact the author on behalf of his new love, a trip overseas presents itself. There are difficulties, not all of them to do with health. The movie reminds us that meeting revered writers is always a tricky prospect, especially when they’re played by Willem Dafoe.
Aside from one discreet sex scene, the movie’s chaste enough for younger viewers to never feel threatened, by either the human body’s lusts or betrayals. If Elgort’s Gus is glibly charming and ultimately affecting, “The Fault in Our Stars” belongs to Woodley, a performer who always seems to be backing warily into her own movies. Here she gives a moving, credible performance with an oxygen tube in her nose throughout, a technical challenge the actress rises to by barely acknowledging it. Outwardly insecure and inwardly assured, Hazel seems a harder-edged cousin to Woodley’s Aimee in last year’s “The Spectacular Now,” which was a better movie than this one. (So was 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” another film adaptation of a much-loved YA book.)
The difference between “Fault” and “Spectacular” is partly in the casting — the earlier film’s Miles Teller is simply a more skilled actor — and partly in the direction. Josh Boone (“Stuck in Love”) keeps “Fault” moving along professionally but with little visual flair; he tends to the characters’ emotions and trusts that the rest of the movie will take care of itself. Every so often he does come through with an image that lasts, like Gus’s blind friend (Nat Wolff) throwing eggs at his ex-girlfriend’s car.
But it’s the emotional close-ups audiences will come for, and as “The Fault in Our Stars” winds its way to a sincere and soggy conclusion, they’ll probably feel they’ve had their money’s worth. Some audiences, anyway. Watching the mid-movie restaurant scene where Gus proclaims his love for Hazel with poetic awkwardness, the woman to the left of me was bawling her eyes out. The couple to my right strained to stifle laughter. You already know which group you belong to.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.