Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

"That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt."

*Spoilers Ahead*

This, one of the opening lines of The Fault in Our Stars, foreshadows what's in store. It pains—immensely. But amidst the pain there is also purpose.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a cancer patient. She's not in any immediate risk of death, but the stage IV cancer that ravaged her lungs left her severely weakened, her ability to breathe made difficult without the help of a nasal cannula. Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a cancer survivor. Aside from the fact that he hobbles about on a prosthetic metal leg, his bout with the disease left him mostly unscathed. Hazel and Gus meet at a cancer support group and quickly begin a friendship, bonding over their mutual love for Hazel's favorite book, "An Imperial Affliction." Their friendship quickly deepens and their mutual attraction is apparent. But Hazel, understanding that the experimental drug that is keeping her lungs working will likely fail one day, is hesitant to form any deep relationships in her life. Gus, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to love and be loved.

Unlike most young adult adaptations that have been recently rushed into theaters, The Fault in Our Stars features no zombies, vampires, werewolves, or dystopian government regimes. Instead, it focuses on the struggles of the hero and heroine who battle with perhaps an even greater foe—the ever-present shadow of death. While experiencing the illness may be unfamiliar to the audience, the struggles wrestled with are widely relatable. Gus grapples with his fear of oblivion, worrying that he will become meaningless in the grand scheme of existence. Hazel fears opening up to others, afraid of committing to love, worried that when the grenade of her life finally explodes all she will leave behind is devastation.

As the characters grow in affection for each other, they help each other to process their fears. Gus illustrates to Hazel that her emotional isolation deprives her of genuine affection without protecting anybody. In turn, she helps him to come to grips with the fact that his life may never reach Mozart-level proportions of fame.

Although The Fault in Our Stars stays quite faithful to John Green's novel of the same name, some subplots were omitted—the swing-set sold on Craigslist was the most disappointing—and some of the less tidy elements of the book were trimmed. Gone is the back-story of Gus's previous romance, the tension between Gus and his parents over the trip to Amsterdam, and some of Hazel's darker emotional moments. These omissions make the movie neater, less complicated, but also less realistic, weakening its impact.

Similar to the novel, the characters are wise beyond their years, precocious in their dialogue. As a result, they sometimes sound too clever for their own good. These portrayals seemed rather unrealistic to me, the dialogue coming off at times as too smart or downright cheesy. Gus places an unlit cigarette between his lips and declares, "It's a metaphor, see: you put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don't give it the power to do its killing." His lines demonstrate an idealized view of the intellect of youth, the way young people see themselves and truly want to be. But it works for their characters, and as the movie progresses, their clever expressiveness becomes less and less distracting and more endearing.

Morality is a murky subject in The Fault in Our Stars. Drawing a diagram in the sand, Gus bemoans his virginity. The big circle, he says, represents 18-year-old virgins; inside it is an even tinier one—representing 18-year-old virgins missing a leg. Gus and Hazel's attraction grows and so does their physical intimacy. Hand-holding and hugging soon turn into kissing. And before you know it, both are awkwardly consummating their relationship, a tangle of oxygen tubes and prosthetics. Their encounter begs applause: a cheer for these two imperfect beings finding true love. But beneath the manipulation lies the subtext that sex is fine as long as you're in love.

The film will make your eyes water, both during its tragic moments and its sweet ones. Hazel eulogizes Gus at his “pre-funeral” with heartbreaking imagery. As she describes their relationship as just a "tiny infinity," she attacks Gus's fears of oblivion head-on. She teaches him that life is not defined by great notoriety or broad public impact. Hazel tells Gus that even the most famous will be forgotten and reminds him that life is defined by those you love and who love you. That is all that will ever last. The message here isn't groundbreaking, but it's told with incredible poignancy. And though there is tragedy, it’s bittersweet.

The Fault in Our Stars draws you in, forcing you to care about these characters, willing them to find a "happily ever after"—while foreshadowing that this is not meant to be. The pain portrayed on screen is brutally felt by its audience and the film captures this emotion with devastating beauty. You may not feel happy when the credits roll, but you will not feel hopeless.

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