There is a real joy that comes with the Young Adult genre. When we were younger, it was cathartic to see our stories played out, or the stories we wished we were living. It was liberating to have real credence given to the life-and-death stakes we always felt we were living at. As an adult, the best of the genre can bring us back to that place. They remind us what it was like to be overwhelmed by a feeling—joy, loss, love, lust, whatever—for the first time, and they let us wallow unashamed in that feeling. The Fault in Our Stars is one of these movies.
Based on the novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars is the story of sixteen year old Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), who has been living with cancer since she was but a tween. Since we are introduced to Hazel well into this stage of her life, her diagnosis (and lack of definite long-term prognosis) feels lived-in, an accepted part of her life. There is no Coming to Terms monologue or emotional explosion. Hazel may be repressed in her fears and feelings, but this coping mechanism is long-standing, and not going anywhere. Her life consists nearly entirely of reading her favorite book on a loop, watching reality TV, going to the doctor, and taking a mountain of prescription drugs, all while strapped to an oxygen tank. To please her parents (Laura Dern and that gorgeous shapeshifter Sam Trammell), she occasionally attends a hilariously unsupportive support group for teens with cancer, led by the over-enthusiastic, under-qualified Jesus-loving Mike Birbiglia. It’s there that she meets Augustus, who lost his leg and the potential basketball career he wasn’t so into anyway after battling “a touch of cancer” a few years back. Gus immediately falls for Hazel, staring with an intensity that crosses the line from charming to off-putting (but comes back around, fear not). Gus is a blaze of a manic pixie dream boy, living his life in metaphors and quirks.
Still, Gus is clever, supportive, crazy about Hazel and, oh yeah, insanely cute. He’s the perfect fit for a teen romance, and as the movie draws you in, so does Gus, stupid affected quirks and all. After they meet, there’s no need to spend much time describing the plot. It’s a story you know: They fall in love, she pulls away, they agree to be Just Friends (but not really), there’s a romantic trip to Europe, more love, and tragedy. But just because the story is familiar, doesn’t mean it’s tired. Right off the bat, in the opening voiceover narration, Hazel tells us this isn’t going to be as neat and happy as a John Hughes or Cameron Crowe movie. But it sure does feel like one. The cause for Hazel’s romantic reluctance may actually be life-or-death, while Diane Court’s just feels like it. But Stars still moves from that universal place of young love that feels far closer to Say Anything than to the existing genre of “sick flick.”
Like Say Anything or The Breakfast Club or even Rebel Without a Cause—any of the best teen movies— The Fault in Our Stars is really only about one thing, and somehow it manages not to be cancer. These movies are about the experience of being a teenager. There’s not a lot of action, and few hijinks. They just let you exist in that terrible/beautiful teen space. All the pain and the excitement of that time, how much it usually just really sucks. Hazel’s circumstances aren’t peripheral by any means, but they are secondary to the rest of her. If it were any other way, the film might be tempted to provide a “lesson” or some deeper “meaning.” Yes, at some (or many a) point you may find yourself wondering what percentage of your body’s water mass you’ve lost through your eye holes, and if it’s possible for this to cause you actual harm. But the movie never feels manipulative. The characters are so natural and understated that they transcend the subject matter. Even when the big feelingsy monologue finally comes, it comes from such an organic place that it will wash over you if you let it. And you should let it. Bring all the tissues you own and give yourself permission to wallow in that teenage pain for a few hours— it hurts so good.
Vivian Kane didn’t read the book first, and feels an unreasonable amount of shame for that.