"The world is not a wish granting factory."
The book The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is one of those books that everyone rants and raves about, but the subject matter (teens dying of cancer) keeps people such as myself away. The main reason I stayed away was not that I couldn't handle an honest look at the world from the perspective of a teenage girl dying of cancer, subject matter that hits somewhat close to home. It's that I couldn't handle any sort of attempt to sentimentalize or deify children forced to grow up too fast. Too often in these sorts of stories, the children possess a wisdom beyond their years because their entire lives are crammed into one-quarter or less of the average lifespan, so the author will seek to make them life lesson spouting machines rather than fully fleshed out characters worth giving a damn about.
When a feature film was announced, it seemed as good a time as any to test that theory. Could this story buck the trend and seek to deal honestly with a very real, very scary, and very human set of circumstances, or would it be just another in a long line of romantic stories that backdoor the same old familiar beats through the guise of a horrendous tragedy? Read on to find out...
Fair warning, I cannot address anything that happened in the novel which was left out of the film, so bear that in mind as you read this. If your response to something I may have gotten wrong or simply misconstrued is "they explain that in the book," there's no way I could possibly have known that.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) was thirteen years old when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which soon spread to her lungs. Pulled back from the brink of death thanks to an experimental medication, Hazel has managed to survive for four more years when the story opens, though she is forced to be on oxygen 24/7 due to her weak lungs. She is suffering from a severe bout of depression, which her father (Sam Trammell) and mother (Laura Dern) try to cure her of by encouraging her to attend a support group at a local church run by the overly cheery Patrick (Mike Birbiglia), a testicular cancer survivor. Though Hazel attends simply to appease her parents, one day she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), a charming 18-year old whose cancer claimed his right leg before going into remission.
Augustus is smitten with Hazel, and begins to make it his mission to cheer up a girl who seems to have resigned herself to the fact that she's going to die by simply being miserable all the time. Hazel, in return, shares her favorite novel with Gus, written by a reclusive author (Willem Dafoe) that Hazel has been trying unsuccessfully to contact for years. When Gus manages to establish contact with the author, he and Hazel are invited to come to Amsterdam and have the ambiguous ending of the book explained to them in person. Gus uses his "Genie Wish," the film's version of the Make-a-Wish foundation, to enable this to happen, but just before the trip Hazel takes a turn for the worse. The film then has another eighty minutes or so until it's over.
The problem with The Fault in Our Stars is that it is the worst sort of pandering, wish fulfillment storytelling imaginable. By making Gus a character who is utterly without fault, the film becomes nothing more than another Young Adult novel that seeks to use escapism to fool impressionable young girls into thinking that no matter what their circumstances, the perfect man will eventually come along and cure all your problems (even cancer!) Now while the film has the common sense to not have Gus literally cure Hazel's cancer, the absurd lengths to which they go to present him as a towering pillar of virtue led me to believe that it wasn't out of the cards that he might have a vial of cancer-curing serum hidden somewhere in his house. The film is just another in a long line of seriously misguided attempts to show that teenage girls simply need a perfect man to make them complete.
This is a dangerous road to travel, and the fact that the film goes out of its way to show that Hazel comes to certain realizations that are incredibly mature and wise on her own, she might never have convinced herself they were true had it not been for the unconditional love shown to her by Gus. They even go so far as to give her mother a moment of absolutely disgusting selfishness, that is perhaps not outside the realm of possibility for a parent facing the death of their child, which only serves to show that she's never known true love of any kind before. It's downright despicable, and audience members fooled into swooning over the love story, or impressed by the honesty of the jokes the characters crack at their disease's expense, are completely missing the forest for the trees. The real message at play here is far more disconcerting, and certainly one which the average teenage girl will pick up on much more readily: You're not complete without a man.
Perhaps the book does a good job of steering things away from this line of thinking, but I doubt it. That message rings out loud and clear, and the gaggle of crying moms and teenage girls at my screening only further cemented that. The fact that there were tears was not surprising, it's when the tears came that spoke volumes about what message got through to the audience. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, I can say that no one was crying over how empowered Hazel felt at the end of the film.
One other scene worth noting is a trip to the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, where Hazel and Gus share their first kiss. The heavy-handed insertion of various Anne Frank quotes such as "I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite indepedent of anyone" certainly doesn't help matters, but again, there's something more nefarious at play here. When they kiss, the entire room, filled with visitors to one of the most sacred spots in the world, where the Holocaust truly hit home, stop gazing at the history around them and applaud these two young lovers. Stop. Just stop. It's really quite despicable when you think about it, and shocking that they would so baselessly mine a tragedy like that to make teenage girls swoon.
Thank goodness Woodley and Elgort are both fine young actors, otherwise this would have been a complete waste of time. Woodley continues to grow as an actress in interesting ways, and always seems to make the best choices in regard to line delivery, so I must applaud her for that. Elgort is similarly good, though the terrible caricature he's portraying does him no favors. They have real chemistry, and I continue to look forward to whatever they do in the future. Dern is fine as well, despite her character being drawn with the broadest brush imaginable, and Dafoe does good work in his two scenes, making a fine villain for a young adult film, not afraid to face the wrath of the throngs of angry teenage girls sure to despise him for the rest of time.
It's that damned script, though, that really stinks of horribly manipulative trickery. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose credits include a 2009 double feature of 500 Days of Summer and The Pink Panther 2, it suffers from horribly protracted misery mixed with a healthy dose of unwarranted proselytizing. It's the very worst of what can come of a book adaptation. The lackadaisical direction by second time feature film director Josh Boone does no one any favors either. It's shot with all the flair of a Lifetime movie, and would likely have been right at home on that network, whose stock in trade is this sort of calculative dreck.
The Fault in Our Stars is pure garbage. It has made me as angry at a film as I've ever been, and it has everything to do with the fact that it thinks it's honest, real, and true, when it is in fact the exact opposite. This is a terrible film to let your tween and teen daughters watch, as it will only bolster the nonsensical belief that they're not complete without the perfect man to show them the world and how much beauty it holds. This is nothing more than another in a long series of stories designed to make them feel less than by pointing out the things they need to come to the realizations that will make them an adult. It's despicable, and I'm honestly shocked that so many critics and audience members are falling victim to its subterfuge. If it walks like a lion, and roars like one, don't be surprised when it tears your arm off while you're busy being entranced by its beauty.
GO Rating: 0.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]