Hazel is 16 and has stage four cancer. It started in her thyroid as a girl and now it’s in her lungs. She spends all of “The Fault in Our Stars” with a plastic breathing tube under her nose, lugging an oxygen tank around on rollers.
Gus is the 19-year-old boy she meets in St. Paul’s Cancer Support Group – and falls in love with. He lost his right leg below the knee to cancer but has been clear for a while.
They meet in a church basement at a cancer support group. The group leader – a cancer survivor – spreads out a rug with a picture of Jesus on it. When group participation is lacking, he picks up his guitar and sings religious folk music.
To Hazel, he is yet another dreary burden of dying, which is how she bluntly assesses her health situation in the movie’s voice-over.
Until Augustus comes along to that church basement, that is, and immediately stares at her in the kind of frankly interested way you can get away with only when you’re 19, a former basketball star with trophies to prove it and, by most female appraisals anywhere in the world, a “cute boy.”
To millions of young Americans – especially those of the female persuasion – the preceding four paragraphs of plot synopsis are entirely unnecessary because John Green’s Young Adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars” is one of the genuine publishing phenomena of our time, a behemoth best-seller whose fans, like those of the “Hunger Games,” “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” books, have become a cultural movement, not just a readership.
At the first Buffalo Thursday night showing of “The Fault in Our Stars” I attended, the theater was packed. Only four of us in the entire place were male (I counted.) And only one of those (guess who) was obviously over 40.
Here, it seems to me, is yet another Young Adult book into movie smash hit that puts the whole vampire vs. werewolf “Twilight” saga to shame for being the third-rate fantasy franchise it is.
If “The Hunger Games” books are for young readers who like to think about things like freedom, social justice, government corruption and the drift of all civilization toward homicidal spectacle and dystopia, “The Fault In Our Stars” is for young readers who want to think about love and suffering and mortality and shed tears; it’s for readers who want to face directly and unflinchingly the way the movie presents us with a heroine who is only seen without a plastic breathing tube under her nostrils for about 15 seconds.
Most importantly, it’s for readers and moviegoers who want to FEEL.
The worst fault in “The Fault in Our Stars” is an ancient cluelessness in American movies that has been criminally undermining for many decades but is so pervasive few people (especially moviemakers) seldom seem to think about it.
And that is that this is a movie about rich people who never even acknowledge their wealth – very rich people. We love the pluck and mordant wit of Hazel as she and Gus face their life circumstances by taking great pleasure in denying others the ability to take refuge in bromides and painful euphemism.
But the terrible tragedy of so many mortally sick young people, even in the First World, is that they are not rich either. They can’t suddenly, as these young people do, in a “Make a Wish” kind of grant, pick up and fly together to Amsterdam to meet a famous author they’ve both bonded over. They don’t, as Gus does, live in a basement apartment in his parent’s home that is a lavishly appurtenanced suburban man-cave that many older men would be happy to move into tomorrow.
We’re watching a Hollywood movie here. Just as the worst years of the Depression were full of Hollywood fantasies full of rich people wearing clothes that cost more than audience member’s automobiles and lived in domiciles that might as well have been palaces, these lovable “cancer kids” live privileged suburban lives whose only issue is survival – duration of time left and the fulfillment of their romantic lives together. Material deprivation and struggle are things they know little of.
We Americans sure do love conspicuous privilege in our movies. And movies, consequently, will do almost anything to present unexplained privilege and avoid more stringent economic realities.
These are very upscale kids. Hazel, for instance, wears a T-shirt with a rendering of Magritte’s “This is Not a Pipe” image on it, so that she can patiently explain a tenet of post-modern thought to her loving Mom (Laura Dern, apparently beginning a new phase of her career).
That being said, “The Fault in Our Stars” is nothing if not a well-made, lovable and welcome tearjerker.
Shailene Woodley is adorable and moving as Hazel, a role that could have been mishandled in a dozen different ways by an overemphatic actress enjoying her presence in one of the most coveted roles of the year. Almost as good playing Gus is Ansel Elgort, an appealing young actor whose name is one of the least euphonious to be slapped on a credit roll in a while (if he ever makes a film with Chiwetel Ejiofor, there will, no doubt, be publicists who seriously consider becoming plumbers.)
Willem Dafoe has a nice turn in the movie as a drunk, bullying American novelist in Amsterdam whose human dreadfulness in the most elementary way gives the film enough asperity to yank it completely away from plucky sentimentality. (In your literary dictionaries, look up “deus ex machina” for his function.) And the scene immediately after his arrival in the film – as Hazel and Gus visit the Anne Frank house – is so deft and well-rendered in every way that the film almost shoots us up to the highest “Hunger Games” level of Young Adult blockbuster storytelling.
Young people will always love movies where the young people they’re watching are more dramatic and important than everyone else in the movie; they’ll always love movies about surrogates who suffer and die in a way no moronic adult could possibly be condescending about.
Those movies are seldom as good as “The Fault in Our Stars.”