Cancer, so costly in real life, can be thrown around pretty cheaply in fiction, which is why most cautious readers and moviegoers are wary of it as a plot element. Call it the Love Story syndrome. But the presence of mortal illness has always been a staple of romantic melodrama, the X factor that raises the emotional stakes to levels that are either sublime or ridiculous, with a blurry line in between. In the hands of the right storyteller, a little cancer can’t hurt: Stories about lovers separated by circumstance are evergreen; death is the ultimate circumstance; and cancer sometimes, though not always, leads to untimely death. In the plumbing mechanics of melodrama, the Big C makes a perfectly useful faucet handle: Turn it and the tears come out, or at least they ought to. In life, it’s cancer’s job to try to kill you. In fiction, it’s cancer’s job to make you cry.
In John Green’s ferociously popular young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars, cancer does its job like a pro. Colloquial, breezy, and laced with black humor — the adjective “cancertastic” may not yet be part of the dealing-with-cancer lexicon, but it should be — the book is very much loved, and not just by teenagers. Without being too maudlin or sticky, it effectively opens up the cathartic flow. You’d think, or at least hope, that 35-year-old director Josh Boone’s film adaptation, which hews close to the book, should do the same. But something gets stuck in the pipeline: The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t quite capture the discreetly twisted humor, or the muted anger, of Green’s book, and its problems can be attributed to a constellation of little annoyances rather than any one serious, North Star–size flaw. Even so, I’m reluctant to damn it. In the world of today’s movies, so reliant on comic-book plots in which People You’re Supposed to Care About (but Perhaps Don’t) are ignobly offed with a massive CGI flourish, there needs to be a place for teen melodrama. The Fault in Our Stars at least tries to fill it.
Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year-old whose lungs have betrayed her; as she puts it, they suck at being lungs. A “miracle” cancer drug has helped, but she knows her illness will kill her sooner than later. She walks through life slowly, an oxygen tank on wheels trailing behind her like the sick kid’s version of an adventurer’s suitcase, oxygen-delivery nubbins tucked into her nostrils. Her concerned-but-cool mom (Laura Dern, doing justice to middle-age moms everywhere with her laid-back grooviness) urges her to attend a church support group. Ugh. Really, Mom? But there Hazel meets an 18-year-old boy with a stunning smirk and a fake leg. He’s lost that limb to cancer, but otherwise he’s doing A-OK.
Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a philosophical ex-basketball player with a tendency toward grandiose pronouncements. Just after their first meeting, he shocks Hazel by sticking a cigarette in his mouth — the look on her face says, “How could you? Around me, with my crap lungs?” But his shtick is clenching cigarettes between his pillowy lips without lighting them: That way, he explains, he accepts their power to kill him without granting them the power to kill him. Hazel thinks this is cool; she is just 17, after all. And while the attraction between Hazel and Augustus is instantaneous, she’s cautious about letting it blossom into a love affair — she doesn’t want to leave him with a painful hole in his heart when she’s gone. Her resolve doesn’t last, and it shouldn’t. Eventually, a novel, or, more specifically, a churlish novelist (played by Willem Dafoe, so perversely transfixing with his pointy little goblin teeth), brings them closer, leading to a highly dubious first kiss way upstairs at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Where else?
There’s plenty in The Fault in Our Stars that’s hard to buy, though that’s not by itself a problem. Woodley is an appealing actress who gives her character some moderately believable shape, though she needs to be reeled back in her big, dramatic moments, when her voice hits the high, nut-busting notes of a hectoring chipmunk. Elgort, set to be the teen heartthrob of the moment (he has already appeared in Carrie and Divergent), presents a bigger complication. His character is given to loquacious soliloquies that need to be looser, funnier, and Elgort can’t navigate them without sounding annoying and pompous. We know why Hazel likes him, but he’s the kind of first boyfriend you need to enjoy for a while and then get away from, not take deep into your heart as the truest love ever. And that, unfortunately, is where the story locks him.
Then again, The Fault in Our Stars is a teenage fantasy, albeit one rooted in the not-so-sunny world of cancer. And there are certain aspects of this half-dreamy, half-earthbound romance that Boone — who has made just one other feature, the 2012 dramatic comedy Stuck in Love — gets just right. As Hazel and Augustus gets to know one another, he asks her what her story is, and she prattles on with a list of treatments, diagnoses, and close calls. He stops her mid-sentence: “Not your cancer story, your real story.” Boone and his actors cut straight to the idea that cancer gives you an unwanted identity, becoming, if you let it, the only thing that defines you. All teenagers are looking for identity, but who wants that one? It’s the third wheel in Hazel and Augustus’s love story, unwanted and always hanging around. It’s also the thing that will make their story really, really sad. Sometimes a good cry is just what the doctor ordered.