The Fault in Our Stars movie review: girl’s own fantasy
Yes, it’s a teenaged girl’s romantic fantasy. And some of it might be in a secret code for young women. Imagine that.
I’m “biast” (pro):
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Yes, it’s a teenaged girl’s romantic fantasy. Deal with it. Oh, not the cancer, of course: nobody dreams about being terminally ill, or having to deal with crap like dragging around a tank of oxygen just so you can keep going, as 18ish Hazel (Shailene Woodley: Divergent, The Spectacular Now) has to do; her lungs are a mess from her cancer, and she could die at pretty much any time. No, the fantasy is Gus (Ansel Elgort: Divergent, Carrie), whom she meets at a support group for teens with cancer. He was only there to back up a friend; he’s actually fine — a past bout with the big C has left him “part cyborg” (he has a partial amputation of one leg and wears a prosthetic) — but he’s been in remission for a good while now. And he is instantly smitten with Hazel, and says sweet, flirty things that are way too sophisticated and confident for such a young man (he’s a little older than Hazel, but not by much) to woo her.
And that’s the fantasy: a cute, smart guy who really sees you (and isn’t put off by, say, your ubiquitous breathing tube, a stand-in for whatever it is that makes a girl feel weird and unattractive), who is persistent but not creepy in pursuing you, and — this is the best part — likes to read (a stand-in for “shares whatever your passion is,” though since this is based on a beloved bestselling book, it’s a fair guess that the most devoted fans of this story will be voracious readers like its protagonist). Hazel has a lot of issues, of course, like how she’s hesitant to get close to anyone because of the imminent-death thing, but she and Gus end up bonding over a novel titled Imperial Affliction that she’s obsessed with, and much of the story revolves around a Make-a-Wish-type trip to Amsterdam to meet its reclusive author (Willem Dafoe: Nymphomaniac, Out of the Furnace) and grill him about the book’s intriguing and infuriating ending, which cuts off midsentence.
The unlikeliness of Gus’s worldliness and poise is the least plausible thing about this charming, heartfelt film… and since it is pleasant fantasy, it’s eminently forgivable. (Elgort is genuinely adorable, and he makes it difficult not to like his Gus.) As Hazel had promised us in the voiceover that opens the film, her story is never sugarcoated, and director Josh Boone never lets this become the sticky, sappy mess it might have been. In fact, the most important scene in the film, the one that is most pertinent to Hazel’s predicament, slips by almost uncommented upon… and it’s a sure bet that even Hazel doesn’t recognize what’s really going on with her then. (Woodley gets it, though: she has an almost Gus-like perfect poise in capturing an inner turmoil that even Hazel herself doesn’t quite understand.)
It’s like this: In Amsterdam, Hazel and Gus visit the Anne Frank museum, and it’s a real chore for Hazel, what with all the stairs, some narrow, steep, ladderlike, and unfriendly to a young woman with bad lungs lugging an oxygen tank. But she perseveres, and it’s at the top of the museum, after her exhausting climb that reminds her of her fragility, and while listening to recorded voices reading passages from Frank’s diary, that Hazel finally realizes she’s in love with Gus, and she kisses him for the first time. Now, this could have been crass, a teen romance appropriating a great tragedy for itself, but it isn’t… because Hazel and Anne’s situations are actually quite similar, in their personal contexts if not their larger ones. Everything about Fault — from Hazel’s initial desire to keep her distance from Gus to her fixation on Imperial Affliction’s abrupt ending — is about Hazel trying to come to terms with the fact that life and the world and her friends and her family will go on without her after she dies, in ways that she will never know. She is coping with being forced to consider her own mortality at far too young an age, just as Anne was. And she is now reminded of Anne’s wisdom, that life is always worth living to the fullest degree possible, no matter what tomorrow might bring. Funnily, that applies even if you’re not dying of cancer. (In fact, we might consider that Imperial Affliction is a stand-in for The Diary of a Young Girl, which many teenaged girls become obsessed with because it gives voice to girls’ secret desires and fears.)
None of this is overtly stated, and it could be it’s even a sort of code that only girls — and sensitive book-loving fantasy guys like Gus — might get. A Hollywood movie that speaks so specifically and so honestly to girls (and women) in a way that maybe only we can hear? Now that is a fantasy.