The Fault in Our Stars (2014): First Impressions

fault in our stars“It was unbearable. Every second worse than the last.”

For the record, I hate cancer, and I’m in awe of those who bear that burden through unimaginable challenges. What’s more — I love a good love story.

With that settled… wow, this movie has some disappointing “faults” such that I couldn’t rate it with “stars” (plural). One… okay, one and a half, for Shailene Woodley (who is excellent), and I’ll leave it at that.

[Caution: Spoilers ahead.]

I apologize in advance if my opinion of this film seems unfairly harsh. I do not want to be a Scrooge about teen romance (I’m not), or hard-hearted toward stories of cancer’s victims and survivors. I went into this film with high hopes and an open mind.

But the troubles began right away.

How dare this movie start out by dissing Say Anything and other teen romances? If it had delivered on its opening statement — “That’s Hollywood sentimentality, but what you’re about to see, oh champions of honesty and authenticity, is the truth” — it might have earned the right to some criticism of pop sentimentality.

But I’ll take Say Anything’s unpretentious romanticism — including the way that it exploits great songs for emotional highs — over one that starts out by dismissing others as sap, then declares that it has some higher claim on truth, and then wallows in even deeper sentimentality and even more severe emotional manipulation, indulging whatever out-of-the-blue plot twists will fling young girls into the most abrupt abysses of emotional breakdowns, and, yes, exploiting great songs.

So no: Stop right there if you’re about to respond by calling me a cynic about romance. Many of my favorite films are romances, and some of them are about young people like Hazel and Augustus. What’s upsetting to me, for starters, is that the film makes promises it doesn’t keep.

Let’s not even talk about how it takes us around the world to the Anne Frank House so that it can exploit that little girl’s bravery as the backdrop for two beautiful teenagers “seize the day” kiss. (As if to celebrate what this movie’s getting away with, its Prince Charming turns and bows to those who came to admire Anne Frank but who are now admiring him.) There are ways to highlight the courage it would take for young people like this to embrace love in the face of challenges, but borrowing gravitas from the courage of those who suffered and died in the Holocaust is inappropriate.

That Woodley invests her character with a great performance only adds to the tragedy here: someone might have cast her in a great film about a young girl’s cancer struggle. She’s effervescent. But then, again, that’s part of the problem: It’s easy to feel good about being drawn into a story of a cancer struggles when the good guys are all beautiful, fashionable, and picture-perfect while the bad guys (there are clear bad guys in this film) are grizzled and ugly.

Any movie that invents the intolerably cocksure Augustus Waters — or Hazel’s parents, for that matter — has to be crazy to raise an eyebrow skeptically at other forms of “wish-fulfillment.” This is the kind of “realism” that likes to set up one-dimensional characters — a girl who breaks up with the nerdy blind boy we like, an acrobatically cynical man who wears white to the funerals of cancer kids — so that we can enjoy egging their houses for emotional catharsis. That’s the kind of “truth” — or, rather, emotional immaturity — that we’re talking about here.

If I were struggling with cancer, I suspect this movie would come across as punch in the gut*: Many would watch it and cry and feel good about how much they’re feeling for these picture-perfect cancer angels, congratulating themselves on appreciating “realism”; and yet they wouldn’t understand anything more about my experience, my disappointments, my struggles, my relationships. And I doubt they’d be any more willing to suffer alongside me through the ugliness that is “real,” the stuff represented here as fashion-plate youngsters holding each other and crying.

In short: This story suggests that you’ll find the meaning of life if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by people who fulfill all of your ideals and who will do anything for you. I’ve been blessed with a lot of love like that, and I’m grateful. But my experience tells me that meaning comes from overcoming self-centeredness, and learning to give love, even to those who make life miserable for me. This story substitutes a self-centered dream for the truth that sets us free.

*Update: Already, people are writing to tell me that young people who have struggled with cancer have embraced this story. That’s fine — far be it from me to tell anybody what can or cannot bring them comfort. But “Other people like it!” is not a counter-argument. People embrace stories that make them feel good all of the time — but that is not a justification of sentimentality or of merely telling people what they want to hear. I love Diet Coke, but doesn’t change the fact that it’s less than nutritious and is likely to do me more harm than good. What’s more: I’m not saying The Fault in Our Stars is devoid of anything meaningful. I just found that it took cheap shortcuts to evoking emotions, and created such an idealistic world that I never found the characters anything close to plausible. You are welcome to sharing your own critical assessment. But hurling personal insults at me only accomplishes two things: 1) It highlights the fact that there is a difference between a critical interpretation and a hasty, emotional reaction; and, 2) It gets you blocked from commenting at my blog in the future.

 

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  • Esther O’Reilly

    Whoa. Brutal! Glad to read this, I had a moment of dread when I saw the post title that it was kicking off your top ten list or something. *slow clapping*