MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-III
Reel Rating: (4 Reels out of 5)
The Fault in Our Stars is a difficult, painful story about cancer-stricken teenagers; it is also one of the most beautiful films ever made about romantic love. It has the courage to approach the frequently trodden—yet nearly always disappointing—genre of “Young Adult” (YA) romance with surprisingly youthful vigor considering its deep subject matter (and without Mandy Moore or sparkling vampires). What a treat! It’s rare to see a film turn almost every expectation on its head in such thrilling fashion.
Put simply, this is a tale of true love, a love forged in the crucible of pain, suffering, and devotion. While it is lacking in addressing spiritual questions, it is profound in its approach to human relationships.
Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is an average sixteen year-old girl who likes books and thinks her parents are embarrassing. But she also has cancer, which requires her to carry around extra oxygen wherever she goes. Her mother forces her to go to an unreasonably lame Christian cancer support group where she meets Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a likeable dreamboat whose recent and successful battle with cancer left him without one leg but in possession of a fresh, exciting perspective on life.
Hazel is obsessed with a serious, dark novel titled, An Imperial Affliction, written by a recluse Salinger-esque Dutch author, which is about a similar cancer patient and which ends, maddeningly, in mid-sentence. Gus manages to contact the author and uses his “cancer wish” to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet him. While mutual attraction is felt immediately, the romance grows slowly, allowing the struggles of time to test their love and make it stronger.
The first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is “life is suffering.” An Imperial Affliction develops this theme with the frequently quoted line: “pain demands to be felt.” Death demands attention; it destroys our expectations and forces us (or should force us) to consider only the most important things of existence, the permanent things. The film pulls no punches in showing the spiritual, emotional, and psychological devastation of being deathly ill when you should be playing high school basketball and eating Blizzards at Dairy Queen.
The Fault in Our Stars can be seen as a theodicy of sorts, not as reconciliation between a loving God and an unjust world but how to find love and meaning amid so much pain and suffering.
Hazel and Gus find this meaning through learning how to love another person. This love isn’t the silly infatuation that plagues so many films, but the love demonstrated in Catholic wedding vows: “I promised to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it even comes from your spouse. Hazel and Gus deal with their problems courageously but often make mistakes and even hurt one another in the process. Finally, they learn that love always entails pain because it entails sacrifice, giving up what you need for the needs of another. That’s an extremely important Christian principle that I hope young adults (as well as older adults!) will learn from this film.
The Fault in Our Stars would be a timeless masterpiece if not for two glaring flaws. Throughout the whole film, director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber revel in making a teen romance that breaks joyously out of the conventions of the genre. The protagonists are attractive but have physical faults; the parents are well-developed and encourage the romance. Not every character gets a happy ending although every character is important and every situation morally conclusive. Suddenly, for one brief moment, the film descends into mediocrity. Hazel and Gus have the obligatory sex scene complete with PG-13 partial nudity. It stands out like a sore thumb, not just because the characters are fornicating but because they are conforming to the notions of what society expected when they had been blazing their own trail the entire movie.
The second fault is the refusal to engage spiritual questions in a meaningful way. Even the most hardened atheist has to at least contemplate the divine in the face of death, but for all the Christian imagery in the film, it is never a serious question. The idea of the divine is mentioned briefly but inconsistently. At one point, Gus mentions that death is oblivion but in another scene states that he firmly believes in the afterlife. The Episcopal church that Hazel and Gus attend (the religion of original novelist John Green) is well-intentioned but extremely out of touch with their problems. Worse of all, Hazel says, “Funerals are for the living, not the dead.” Maybe secular funerals, but Christian funerals are not just eulogies. They are a chance to bring the dead to God through prayer.
Original sin brought many things into this world, one of the worst of which is seeing a child die painfully well before her time. Life is unfair, and we deal with the consequences of a sin we did not personally commit, including natural evil. God doesn’t offer a way out of our suffering but does offer a way to make suffering meaningful and ultimately salvific through Jesus Christ. Romantic love, properly understood through the sacrament of marriage, brings salvation because it teaches the family how to love like Christ loves.
There is a scene early in the film where the cancer support group meets on a rug made in the image of the Sacred Heart. “We are literally in the heart of Jesus,” the counselor tells them. Hazel and Gus find this image a little silly and maybe sacrilegious, but they do find the heart of Jesus in the hearts of each other. What a beautiful film.