June 17, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Initially, I did not want to see The Fault in Our Stars. It was obvious from all the hype that the book (written by John Green) and the movie (directed by Josh Boone) were intended to pull at our heartstrings in a very calculated way. But then I listened to the Village Voice film podcast, in which critics Stephanie Zacharek and Alan Scherstuhl discuss Ruth Graham's article denouncing adults who read young adult fiction. Graham hits YA (Young Adult) fiction pretty hard, insisting that adults who read it ought to be embarrassed. She makes a convincing point. There are a lot more adults reading young adult fiction nowadays at the expense of the more "grown-up" stuff they're expected to read. Actually, Graham argues that it's their privilege to read the grown-up stuff, remembering the time in her life when she "graduated" to reading grown-up novels and how thrilling it was to finally reach that threshold. I've heard it over and over again from my friends who are in some cases 10 and 20 years older than I am: "I just prefer YA fiction." "It's really getting more and more complex." "I like not having to think too much." (Those last two are contradictory but I have heard versions of them both.)

I suppose that reading YA fiction exclusively would be like me watching only 80s teen comedies. When I was a teenager, I found The Breakfast Club compelling, poignant, achingly honest, heartfelt, and powerful. It spoke to teenagers who thought their parents were the worst. As an adult, I no longer live in that bubble. Perhaps Ally Sheedy's prophecy in The Breakfast Club was true: that "when you get older your heart dies" and because all our hearts are dead, we think nothing of it. But if we could stand face-to-face with our teenage selves, they'd be screaming a warning to us (or rather, themselves) not to let it happen. But in any case, I see teenagery movies differently than I did when I was a teenager, and I'm only 28. Heaven knows I'll see them even more differently when I'm 38 and when I'm 50. 

Although Ruth Graham is right in calling upon adults to fill their minds with more adult literature, she doesn't really do The Fault in Our Stars justice. Yes, it's a gushy melodrama to a large extent (we knew that going in), but it also deals with death in a rather grown-up and complex way. Perhaps it's too easy to vest the main character Hazel (played by Shailene Woodley) with such nuanced views on mortality, and yet, she's a girl who's had to face what most people her age (and older) have not, at least in the Western world. Living with death (in this case a terminal cancer diagnosis) changes you. One of my best friends was born with cystic fibrosis, and all his life he knew he was going to die. The rest of us know this, deep down, about ourselves, but spend most of our lives wishing it away, pretending we're immortal. My friend Ben lived with his own impending death every day doing breathing treatments and spending sometimes weeks in the hospital, which was a normal part of his life. Likewise, Hazel knows much more about death than most of us because she's staring it in the face: every time she walks up a flight of stairs and gets winded, every time she wakes up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, every time she sees that look in her mother's eyes that says "I'm going to outlive you." She is forced to make peace at the age of 15 what many people refuse to acknowledge at 75.

There is one side of Hazel that is a bit childishly needy when it comes to life. Her favorite novel--which she's read over and over again--ends mid-sentence. And this abrupt, ambiguous finale deeply troubles her. When she gets her new friend Augustus Waters to read the book, he too is frustrated, and contacts the author, who's now living a reclusive, Salinger-esque life in Amsterdam. The author's unexpected reply initiates a trip to the Netherlands to meet him, which goes about as successfully as throwing a glass of water on a burning building.

So the big moment--meeting the famous, reclusive author--fails to give Hazel and Augustus any closure about their favorite book. But really, the film uses this to grow them up even more. Life ends in mid-sentence. What little there was remaining of their childhood (Augustus too has dealt with cancer, which led to the amputation of one of his legs) was wrapped up in getting a cushy ending to that novel, and it's shattered into shards of glass, with which they are left to deal.

I think The Fault in Our Stars marvelously shows us the tragedy and the beauty of human existence, and even if it's a melodrama full of moments crafted to squeeze the moisture from our eyes and noses, it's a heartfelt film, one that doesn't shy away from the painfully unanswered questions of life. Furthermore, this movie has a sense of humor about death that everyone seems to conveniently forget. Sometimes it's a big relief when we can laugh at our own mortality. And, as Stephanie Zacharek and Alan Scherstuhl point out, it's one of the few movies aimed at young people (or any people) this summer that doesn't involve explosions. For that I am eternally grateful. My only fear is that this film's success will open the door to a new terminal-teenager-melodrama sub-genre, and that the quality of such films will exponentially diminish over time. I guess we can only hope. (Also, I hope that the young stars of this film, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, are given more opportunities to show us what they're made of as actors. They're both passionate and exciting young performers.)

With Laura Dern as Hazel's mother, Sam Trammell as Hazel's father, Willem Dafoe as the grumpy novelist, and Nat Wolff, as a friend of Augustus who's also dealing with cancer. The novel was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber.

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