Kids with cancer. That movie about kids with cancer. I can’t handle kids dying. Why would I want to watch that?
I have heard all of the above and I am here to tell you that THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is about love. That’s it. Love. Love between individuals, family members, the love we are lucky enough to receive, and – moreover – to give in our lives no matter how long they last. Like a funeral is not really for the deceased, it is the love we give out that blesses our human experience more than anything else and bring us closer to eternal life. That not only happens to be the message of this film, and it does a deft job of delivering it, but it is conveniently how I myself feel about love as well. That was handy when, using my sole tissue a full three more times more than it was designed for, I could remember that I was crying for those I have loved and lost, not for the loss of those who have loved me. Generally I do not summarize plots nor will I do so here, but the film, based on the best-selling book of the same name by John Green, is a story about two teenagers battling cancer who fall in love. I feel that I can safely divulge that much without spoiling the trajectory of the story. Aside from the practical trials and the emotional agony of anyone living with and being treated for cancer, the story addresses the existential questions regarding self-definition, destiny, death and our human need for certainty and answers in a completely ambiguous existence. These themes are heavy and universal and there are some no doubt who will say its easy to provoke emotion with a story about teens with cancer, but no… it’s not easy to effectively do so no matter what pretext you set it in. Director Josh Boone brings forth true feeling, dare I say empathy, with nuanced parallels which do not pander to the audience, and builds his characters with skill. Aside from being a bit too long at 125 minutes, I was impressed by the fact that this is only his second feature film.
Hazel, portrayed in her best acting to date by Shailene Woodley, is a teenager battling lung cancer and consequently severely diminished lung function. She ferries her portable oxygen tank around like Paris Hilton carries a small dog. Far from resembling anything fashionable, rather it is an ever-present byproduct of that which she cannot escape, which will ultimately deal her an untimely death and hints at being a corpse which follows her at all times. The audience is pressed to see her beauty under the plastic tubing embracing her face, which has a conspicuous lack of makeup. Augustus “Gus” (Ansel Elgort) is her fellow cancer “survivor” who has lost a leg to bone cancer. Elgort accelerates hard and fast with cocky, bombastic smart aleck Gus who honestly tested my patience and willingness to engage. And yet, by films’ end, we appreciate and forgive him the facade as the necessary bravado needed by his character. After encountering one another at one of her excruciating support group meetings the film follows the path of their relationship and their disease. Their friendship begins with Hazel’s recommendation of a book which has absorbed her, given her a vocabulary for life with cancer, and which creates a destination point for the narrative arc of the story. Along the way to our ultimate destination and our false summit so to speak, the book underscores questions I suspect all cancer patients must ask; How does one separate who they are from their cancer story? How do we who love them, distinguish the person from his or her illness? And how much of who one is, who one has become, is because of his or her illness? Similarly, how does one – can one – separate a work of art from the artist himself? Can we love a piece of art and possibly hate its creator? There is a well crafted and not-too-heavy scene where Hazel and Gus are discussing their beliefs, and the “point” of life in a jocular game show kind of way which craftily avoids any mention of God. It is immediately followed with the answer: Love. That’s when I lost my shit the first time. Just as Hazel and Gus struggle with love in the face of certain looming death and the ensuing pain of loss, we must look at the uncertainty of how little time any of us may have left. Can he or she who is dying control and deny another’s love for them in an effort to spare them inevitable pain? Will it work and is that even the right and fair choice? It may be tomorrow or it may be 80 years away but we each face those questions – if we are lucky. Boone does not shove pathos down our throats, but lays a universal truth plainly at our feet to jump into or step over. Cancer is a facile and succinct framework to flesh out love, passion, pain, meaning, beliefs and so much more, and Hazel herself puts it perfectly, “The only thing worse than biting it from cancer is kids biting it from cancer.”
The supporting cast of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is capable but never detracts from the two leads. Laura Dern plays Hazel’s mother with a well-balanced mix of stoicism and edge of panic. She is neither the suffering martyr nor the iron maiden filled with denial, and her character is granted one of the best written exchanges in the film. That’s when I lost my shit the second time, just in case you’re keeping score. Gus’ best friend Issac (Nat Wolff), also a cancer survivor, verges on the humor-as-coping-mechanism a bit too much but ultimately presents as a more tortured soul which is satisfying and far more believable. Willem Dafoe brings gravity to what could have been a fairy tale aspect to the film, and provides a different and important perspective on illness, pain and loss which keeps the story grounded in a possible reality. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is sad. It poses questions applicable to each of us – ill or well. It effectively reawakens first love in our hearts. It inspires deep gratitude (hopefully) in those of us who are well. And it does not make cancer look sexy. It is not however a P.T. Anderson film mind you. Sure there’s a soft pedal here, beautiful people who happen to be terminally ill but remain pretty darn beautiful, tragedy which alters lives forever but with a sparkle of hope. And that’s ok. And in spite of yourself you will feel. And that’s the whole point folks…
Director: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Sam Trammel and Nat Wolff
Running Time: 125 minutes
Originally written for ScreenRelish
Movie Review The Fault in Our Stars