The Fault In Our Stars is exactly the type of movie you think it is, meeting pretty much all the conventions of the cancer-as-sentimentality genre. Girl dying of cancer meets boy who is a survivor of cancer, a romance blossoms and fills the audience with happy feelings, and then an emotional punch to the gut takes over the third act and everyone walks away bemoaning the tragedy of this young love. This movie hits all those notes fairly spot-on. And yet, I felt fairly satisfied by the time it was all said and done. In fact, it’s not a bad movie at all, and that’s a surprising thing for me to say, given my reprehension for shallow, emotionally manipulative storytelling.
That’s probably because, despite the film relying on tried-true tropes of a genre that thrives on the emotional insecurities of teenagers, it’s self-aware of these tropes and actually goes out of its way in its narration to point out exactly what’s happening. See, narrator and main character Hazel is savvy to the tropes of teen cancer fiction because she herself lives a life as a teen cancer victim, and she’s aware that her story follows a path that lazy writers have used for decades. Meta-confessing its own tropes doesn’t automatically excuse them, but it does mean that the film is willing to lay its cards on the table and admit exactly what kind of story it’s telling. That goes a long way toward making what would otherwise be a cash-grab adaptation of a teen weepie novel into a well-told story in its own right.
And well-told the story is, with likable characters often engaging in witty banter that is endearing and funny without being condescending or overly sentimental. As previously mentioned, Hazel’s narration provides a great meta-textual overview to a plot we’ve seen the basic outlines of many times before, and it makes her that much more relatable. She recognizes that her love story is one of fairly standard transformation from reclusion to finding the love of her life, but that doesn’t matter because within her universe, it’s still happening to her.
Now, that isn’t to say the film is entirely devoid of its faults and genre trappings. When I say that the characters are likeable, that proves to be problematic in two separate respects. The first that I’ll mention is a surprising appearance by Willem Dafoe as a character who is supposed to be extremely unlikable, and yet Dafoe brings such bizarre energy to the part that I couldn’t help but laugh in a scene where, frankly, I really wasn’t supposed to. More importantly to the film as a whole, though, is the disgustingly perfect representation of love interest Gus. This guy is a handsome, scholarly, athletic, and eloquent teenage straight girl’s wetdream, and it gets to a certain point where he becomes so unrealistic that it serves as a reminder that his existence serves only to further Hazel’s character arc. The film attempts a token scene toward the end where the emotional hardship of events starts to break through his always-cheerful exterior, but it’s resolved so quickly that it feels that scene only exists to give justification against an argument that he is too perfect.
That being said, though, The Fault In Our Stars is about as good a version of what it’s trying to be as one could reasonably expect. Its self-awareness and refusal to shy away from the actual gravity of its subject matter elevates it above standard attempts to use cancer as an exploitative tool to take teenagers’ expendable income. It’s subject to the limitations of the genre and doesn’t quite transcend them, but all in all, I’d say it’s worth checking out.
No question today. Just a statement: Fuck Nicholas Sparks. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.