Early on in The Fault In Our Stars, Indianapolis 16-year-old Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) heads for a group therapy session for cancer teens on the second floor of a church. She means to take the elevator, but it is occupied by a boy in a wheelchair, his head chemo-bald, his aspect forlorn. For a moment, an odd thought may strike viewers who have not read John Green’s best-selling novel on which the film is based but know it’s basically a teenage take on the old weepie Love Story (“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?”). Is Hazel, debilitated and depressed by thyroid cancer, to fall for, and spend the rest of the film with, this poor, bald, not-so-comely kid?
Of course not, we realize, as soon as Hazel meets the tall, handsome, personable Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), 18, a high school basketball star who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. Hazel’s doctor has advised doubling her meds, but the true antidote is a strong dose of luh-uv. And Augustus is the sweetest Dr. Feelgood. His seeming ease with his prosthesis, and with what doctors tell him is an 85% chance of not dying soon, complements her dour belief that “depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.” Candide and Cassandra are the perfect match. And what is drama–all drama, really–but the story of beautiful people with terrible problems?
Most teens think they’re on an adventure adults can’t understand. For cancer teens, that adage is true; they are likely to die before they become adults. This faithful version of the Green novel, directed by Josh Boone, serves as Hollywood’s own Make-a-Wish gesture. It allows Hazel and Augustus to pack the luster of a lifetime–first love, trip to Europe, meeting a famous author, last love–into what may be their only summer. Skeptical Hazel comes alive at the innocent touch of Augustus, who radiates the urgent charm of a vintage pop record–one that has just three minutes to raise your spirits or break your heart. Augustus does both.
He and she may weave the same magic on moviegoers, so smartly does the film enfold this loving couple in the cocoon of evanescent intimacy. The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose scripts for (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now also apotheosized the angst and ecstasy of young love, allows Hazel and Augustus one friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), for misanthropic comic relief, while cannily excluding Hazel’s parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) from her secret world. Though her years of cancer treatments have made them experts at fretful optimism and pregrieving, they can be chaperones but not confidants. And they must be denied access to their daughter’s treehouse of love.
Fault has a few. A meeting in Amsterdam with Hazel’s favorite author (Willem Dafoe) seems a bilious detour with an improbable payoff. The trip also affords the filmmakers an egregious scene at the Anne Frank Museum, where a Jewish girl’s descent into the Holocaust is compared to a teen’s cancer. To paraphrase Hazel’s maxim on infinities: some atrocities are bigger than other atrocities.
Yet Hazel and Augustus will live in film lore because of the young actors who play them. Woodley, who graduated from supporting roles (George Clooney’s rebellious daughter in The Descendants) to indie leads (the bookworm in The Spectacular Now) and her own YA-movie franchise (Divergent), has the gift of acting internally: she makes you watch her watch something, lets you read the mind of her character like a good book. Often photographed in dermatological closeup, Woodley’s face is its own engrossing movie–an autumnal symphony of light and dark browns. She makes Hazel the ideal narrator and receptive audience to Augustus’ agreeable showmanship.
Elgort, who plays Woodley’s brother in the Divergent films, has a natural appeal and suave chemistry with Woodley. Though you know that Fault, like Love Story, is bound to have a body count, the symbiosis of these stars is so strong, you’ll wish there could be a sequel.
This appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of TIME.