“Love is watching someone die” – “What Sara Said” by Death Cab for Cutie
Starting off a review, or really anything with song lyrics, is a very teenage kind of thing to do. Then again, the beautifully rendered teen drama The Fault in Our Stars is a very teenage kind of movie.
When you’re a teenager, you feel everything so vividly. Everything is the potential end of your world. Every crush, every setback, every parental interaction feels like the weight of the world crashing down upon your shoulders. But what if you couldn’t subscribe to The Perks of Being a Wallflower concept that your life is only beginning and that you could feel “infinite”? What if every day brought you closer to the end of your world and you lived in constant fear that you could die mid-sentence and never once feel like you did anything special with your life? What if your world really was ending? Would it cause you to grow up overnight or would you decide to live your life like a fantasy to make the crushingly unfair truth of reality more palatable?
These are the questions within the margins of director Josh Boone’s big screen porting of John Green’s bestselling young adult novel of the same name. Working from an extremely faithful script written by (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, the book’s biggest weaknesses become the film’s greatest successes. It’s a lovely tale of youthful exuberance where the characters don’t have time to waste on “uh’s” and “um’s” and “you know, like’s.” Sure, maybe they don’t sound like real people, but they also don’t have time to mince words. They are living lives with clocks over their heads, aware of their own mortality and with very little room for useless frivolity. Sure, the film isn’t nearly as dark and dour as one might expect a film about teenage cancer patients to be, but it’s probably smarter than most of the teens who will watch the film.
That’s probably why the book was such a success. This story of a young woman (Shailene Woodley) and a young man (Ansel Elgort) caught up in a star crossed romance has all the elements that teens love in their literature: deep emotions, flowery conversations about the nature of life and love, and a feeling that even if things aren’t going to be okay that hope will still remain. There’s a reason stories like Green’s are so timeless in the first place: it’s good natured escapism that plays into the biggest fears of the audience and does so by making the audience think of the best possible versions of themselves. It’s respectful and empathetic, which makes it all the more heartbreaking, funny, and surprising as the film adaptation goes on.
Woodley plays Hazel Grace, a 17 year old community college student with stage 4 thyroid and lung cancer. She’s not a sad sack or a charity case by any stretch, but by design from within and without she’s become a loner with a sense of humour. Forced into toting around an oxygen tank like an extended metaphor for physical and emotional baggage and wearing nasal cannula tubes at all times, Hazel narrates her own story with a realistic weariness and without even a hint of cynicism. There’s anger, fear, and a great deal of confusion aimed at her own plight, but she has already moved on to the final stage of acceptance. She knows she’s going to die. She knows it could be really soon or it could be a long time down the road, but it’s going to happen. And also, like anyone who is dying, she doesn’t want to be treated like someone who isn’t going to be around much longer.
Enter 18 year old Gus (Elgort), a video game nerd, former jock, and a cancer survivor himself who lost a leg but otherwise appears like someone who brims with the positivity that can only come from cheating death. He’s a terrible driver and he chomps down on unlit cigarettes as his own kind of personal metaphor, but he’s not reckless. He takes a shine to Hazel at first sight during a hilariously awkward support group meeting for kids with cancer run by a complete goof (stand up comic Mike Birbiglia, who I wish there was more of in the film that just a couple of scenes at the beginning) out of a church basement that’s ludicrously referred to as the “literal heart of Christ.” Aside from bonding over a fellow group member who just got dumped because he’s about to lose his eyesight and getting Gus to read her favourite novel, Hazel falls in love with Gus because he’s the only person who can give her what she really wants: to be treated as a person and not as if she was dying and needs to be coddled all the time.
It’s a grand romance like so many teen romances: they will burn as bright as the sun until they sputter and fizzle out either by life, circumstance, or boredom. But here the stakes are considerably higher since it’s apparent right from the outset that the story can only have a fatal conclusion. Boone exploits that with a sense of pacing that allows the romance to be told in a more episodic fashion instead of constantly trying to show how every situation away from home can potentially kill Hazel. There are plenty of opportunities, but there are only two actual scenes of real peril, and the second of which actually makes physical and logistical sense. Cancer on screen can be, and sadly often is, depicted as a horror movie villain that will strike at any time. What the film does well is that it makes cancer an actual character: a wild card that doesn’t care about timelines, convenience, or making the plot move along. The disease moves at its own pace, and quite often without rhyme or reason.
That’s the thing that I think most people don’t really seem to understand about cancer if they haven’t been around it. It’s not usually something that once it hits you become bedridden or you go out and create a bucket list of things to do before you die (just look at The Bucket List, the absolute WORST and most insulting film ever made about people slowly dying). There will be good days and there will be bad days. These characters, even Hazel’s loving, doting, realist parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, both great), understand that and they generally allow Hazel to life her life within reason and like a normal teenage girl should she so choose. It’s refreshing to see a film that actually gets cancer right.
There isn’t a cynical bone in this film’s construction aside from a purposefully stand-offish character during the pair’s trip to Amsterdam to meet the author of Hazel’s favourite novel (played perfectly by Willem Dafoe in a pivotal supporting role). Even then, that character will make more sense over time. The chemistry between Woodley and Elgort is appropriately adorable, and given the dialogue that they have to speak, there aren’t two actors better suited for the role. Woodley embodies the grace and charm of her character splendidly, showing further range and underlining why she has become such a major talent as of late. Elgort gets the showier role and delivers a more surprising performance as a self-aware cheeseball with a heart of gold.
Sure, these characters are making doe eyes at each other and saying things that might sound strange to our ears. But think about being a teenager and what went through your head when you loved someone. Didn’t it sound like the stupidest shit you would ever come up with? Have you ever looked back on teenage poetry or things that you scribbled down when you were at your most existentially angst ridden and wonder what the heck you were doing? You would probably come up with things that were so suspect to say that they seem incredibly sweet when viewed in the right light. Now imagine that you knew you didn’t have a lot of time left to say these things. Would you bottle them up and never say them or would you get brave and try to leave your mark on the world and those closest to your orbit? That’s the other theme that emerges as the film goes on, with the dialogue actually informing the film to such a great degree that it leads to the film’s best scene: a climactic and decidedly unflowery speech delivered by Hazel to Gus that’s so beautiful you wish someone had said it to you at some point in your life.
And yeah, maybe it’s a little corny despite all the respect paid to making these people not feel like walking corpses, but I’m convinced corniness is a byproduct of tragedy. If ever I thought that the film was going off the rails, I just reminded myself of watching my mother in her hospital bed dying of stomach and lung cancer. I brought her my childhood teddy bear to sit beside her and watch over her. I was 19 and allegedly beyond the age when you should “know better.” Corniness happens. It’s as real as life, love, and cancer. If you can look past that and not be a complete cynic (or if you know exactly the kind of feeling I’m talking about), then you’ll understand precisely what The Fault in Our Stars is all about. Love really is watching someone die and being brave enough to stick around for every last minute of it.