Cancer teens in love and death

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The Fault in Our Stars (M). Director: Josh Boone. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe. 126 minutes

I'm a big believer that categorisations such as 'young adult fiction' are largely arbitrary; that a good story is a good story, regardless of the medium. Yet sometimes you can't escape the feeling that you are simply the wrong demographic for the film that you are watching. I got the distinct impression that among the audience at the screening of The Fault in Our Stars that I attended were many fans of John Green's YA novel on which it was based. They laughed and cried with equal vigour. I did not share their enthusiasm.

That was certainly true of my responses to the film's hero, Augustus Waters (Elgort). He is a cancer sufferer, and the film revolves around his romance with the story's narrator, fellow sufferer Hazel (Woodley). There was much giggling among many of my fellow cinemagoers any time he opened his mouth, even if what he said was not discernably a joke. This suggests that the on-screen portrayal resonated with their fond impressions of the character on the page. Clearly he is intended to be cherubic, confident and 'deep'. To me he seemed obnoxious.

This is a persistent problem in the film. The characters are types, and the film relies on the audience to recognise and respond easily to them as such, when often the evidence suggests that they are something other than how they are being presented.

For example, a major subplot involves Augustus and Hazel travelling to Amsterdam to meet Hazel's hero, reclusive author Peter Van Houten (Dafoe). He wrote a novel about a cancer sufferer, which Hazel adores but which ends too abruptly for her tastes. When she plies him with questions about 'what happens next' to the novel's characters, he brutally responds that 'nothing happens to them — it's fiction'. It's supposed to make him seem villainous, but really it just seems like common sense.

This cognitive dissonance makes it difficult to engage with the characters in any meaningful way. And without that level of engagement, everything else — the comic and tragic flourishes of what is an inherently sad story — fall flat. For me, at least; the cinemagoer who openly, loudly wailed during the tearjerker finale might disagree.

It's unfortunate, because the film is refreshingly frank about questions of life and death, especially for a story aimed at young people. The characters are pragmatic about their mortality. They have conversations about God and the afterlife, and find little comfort. A scene where two characters deliver eulogies to their still-living friend would be profoundly sad if the characters were more substanial. Even Hazel's head-scratchingly naive questions to Van Houten reveal an unspoken anxiety about what will happen to her loved ones after she dies

Less palatable is a scene where the characters' lives are pointedly paralleled with the experiences of Anne Frank, during a visit to her house. No one would begrudge a young person, cancer or no, drawing inspiration from Anne's upbeat worldview in the face of the horrors that confronted her. But the experience of cancer is an individual horror that does not bear comparison to the vast collective horror of the Holocaust. For the film to make of this a thematic lynchpin for its characters comes off as exploitative in the extreme.

The glibness of this scene — which ends in a kiss between Hazel and Augustus in Anne Frank's bedroom that draws a round of applause from fellow tourists — is the nadir of this well-intentioned but poorly judged film.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Fault in Our Stars, Josh Boone, Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe



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Existing comments

I disagree with you. I saw this movie last night and thought it was sad and meaningful. The author had experienced his own loss and not dealt with it; his alcoholism and lack of faith were outcomes of this. I therefore could understand the novel ending mid-sentence as that is the way life was for him; meeting him helped Hazel to form her own meaning of Gus' life and death. It was a sad though good story, and lovingly portrayed the current and future roles of her parents.

Liz | 16 June 2014  

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