“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves…..”
Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene 2)
Hazel Grace Lancaster, the heroine of John Green’s hugely successful novel on which this film is based, disagrees. Sometimes the fault is, indeed, in our stars. She’s right.
Actually Cassius, the speaker in Shakespeare’s play, is right too. Often, as humans, we blame fate when the responsibility lies with the decisions we make, or fail to make. Unhappy circumstances are often the consequences of our own choices. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it is fate and our choices have nothing to do with it. Cancer sucks, “Pain demands to be felt”
I’ve not read Green’s book but it has been so popular and so widely discussed that I knew the basics of the story. As a plot it is not exactly untilled soil, coming of age, first love, cancer kids. The outline is predictable. Critics of book cite it as the latest addition to the “sick-lit” genre of Young Adult fiction. Based on the film, I’d have to say that characterization is simultaneously accurate and unfair. It’s true but it doesn’t give an complete picture.
I am not a particularly emotional person when dealing with the realities of life but I am a notoriously ‘soft touch’ when it comes tears in entertainment. Movies, plays, music, the occasional ASPCA television advertisement; it is not difficult to get a tear to trickle down my cheek. I’m not oblivious to emotional manipulation in storytelling. I just don’t let that awareness interfere with the experience. So I was intrigued that there were no tears during this movie. If ever there were an opportunity for blatant ‘tear-jerking’ it is a story of young love among the terminally ill. There is some of that but I found it to be subtly and sensitively presented.
It helps that the story spends very little time in hospitals. There is the barest minimum of exposition about diagnoses, tests and treatments. Cancer hangs over these characters’ lives like a dark cloud but it isn’t the focus of the story. The story is about how they confront the rest of their lives when cancer is a given.
There are great moments of humor. I love the characters’ discussion of their “cancer perks”, the things their parents, and others, let them get away with because of their illness. There is a lot of discussion about how best to use their “wish”, the requests they get to make from an organization like the “Make A Wish” Foundation. In the movie they are referred to as “the genies”, as if getting a wish were just part of the deal of having cancer.
All the performances are strong. I was distracted, at first, because Hazel seems, to me at least, to be older and more mature than Augustus. I came to embrace that as the story progressed. She has a world-weariness that must come to a young woman who has battled cancer since she was 13. In many ways she is inexperienced but she is not an innocent. She lost her innocence a long time ago.
The always-outstanding Laura Dern is wonderful as Hazel’s mother. She gives a multilayered performance that adds much to the story with relatively little dialogue. Equally strong is Willem Dafoe as a character that would be easy to despise and dismiss if portrayed by a lessor talent.
The story has its short-comings. It is simple. The characters are beautiful young people who live in very nice, upper middle class homes, They have attractive parents who love them and each other and, apparently, have very good health insurance. It would easy to call the setting simplistic. I prefer to think they chose to focus on story of the two young people with as little extraneous detail as possible.
I liked this movie more than I expected to. Harper’s Other Dad gets credit for our going. It is not a movie I would have chosen to see, but I’m glad I did. In the end, the plot offers no surprises. The story doesn’t depend on them. In fact, the only surprise for me was having dry eyes. That doesn’t mean the story is not worth telling.