Friday, June 13, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Dear Brutus 
Wasting Away (Again) in Augustus-World

Alvy Singer: [addressing the camera] There's an old joke - um... two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions." 
Annie Hall, 1977

I never read the book by John Green (but I want to now, which is as high a compliment as you can pay any film adaptation), so I can say I walked into The Fault in Our Stars without prejudice. With that lack of preparedness, I would not miss my favorite lines, or shake my head that the actor I imagined in my head while reading isn't performing the role. Any potential aspect that might be terribly missed or changed is unknown. My admiration for it is remarkably clear-eyed (no, I didn't cry, but was moved...more by the writing than the situations), and came away from it with a healthy respect, although it belongs to a genre I'm always suspicious of, and slightly cynical towards—the movie love story.
But The Fault in our Stars is about so many other things than love, even as it broaches so many aspects of it.  It is also about existence and the melancholy contemplation of its loss, as its young adult protagonists, very early in their lives, confront the thoughts and fears of someone who might be middle-aged or older. They are spinning through life far too fast, suffering through it, and sad that it will end so quickly.

Such small portions.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. In remission, she is still scarred from the disease, dependent on supplemental oxygen to keep up her strength (which isn't much—it's a struggle going up or down stairs), a nasal cannula perpetually in her nostrils, more embarrassing than braces, dragging behind her an oxygen system like her own private black cloud.
She's depressed. Her Mom (
Laura Dern, her best role in years) is worried. "Depression is not a side effect of cancer," 
says Hazel diffidently. "It's a side effect of dying" But, she is depressed, in ways she can't even tell her parents. "I'm a grenade!" she protests at a later point in the movie, capable of taking other people out, when she finally succumbs. This tears at her soul. She remembers the trauma of her parents when she was thirteen, a heart-beat from dying, and fears the next moment. She obsesses about a favorite book, "An Imperial Affliction," written by an expatriate recluse about a young girl with cancer, and her interest is in...what happens after to the other characters.
So, she is shuffled off to a cancer support group at a local church, led by a very earnest young man (Mike Birbiglia) who might not be the best choice to lead. One day, one of the group's members Isaac (Nat Wolff), who has lost an eye to cancer and will soon lose the other, brings along his friend Augustus West (Ansel Elgort) a former star basketball player in school, who's lost his right leg to cancer, but has a decidedly different attitude about life and the disease. He and Hazel lock eyes in the session in what one would call a reverse of a "meet-cute" (a staple of romantic comedies)—he surmises her with a smiling assumption; she parries with a cocked eyebrow challenge dialed all the way up to "Intimidate." They bicker wordlessly for a time, in a lovely display of story-telling without dialog. If they have one thing in common, it's that they think the support group is a crock.

The thing is, it's where they find the most crucial support they need—in each other.

Augustus is cocky ("I'm part cyborg, which is awesome?" he jokes at the group by way of introduction), winning, challenging—and with definite quirks that have been well thought-out to impress. He's a cancer patient who walks around with a cigarette in his mouth. The idea repulses Hazel: 

Hazel Grace Lancaster: Really? That's disgusting!
Augustus Waters: What?
Hazel Grace Lancaster: What? Do you think that is cool? Or something? You just ruined the whole thing.
Augustus Waters: The whole thing?
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Yes, this whole thing.
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Even thou you have freaking cancer, you are willing to give money to a corporation for a chance to acquire even more cancer? Let me just assure you that not being able to breathe? SUCKS. Totally disappointing. Totally.
Augustus Waters: They don't kill you unless you light them. And I've never lit one. It's a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don't give it the power to do its killing. A metaphor.
Neat idea. As I said, well thought-out. But, Augustus' brave little smoking metaphor betrays an insecurity, and is its own kind of crutch. He'll never light a cigarette, but he'll depend on them just as much as if he smoked two packs a day. Augustus is a brave face. Hazel Grace is an old soul. Together they make one healthy person, staring into the abyss.

To say any more will betray a lot of really good stuff—better than you'd find in most young adult fiction—stuff that's quotable enough that it sounds like a cliche the moment it's out of somebody's mouth (one of them at the bottom of this is lovely, even if it's going to be on a Hallmark card within the year). You get the sense that these kids are kids, despite having a familiarity with the most tongue-twisting of medical jargon, and the philosophical world-view of a pensioner.
The script, out of Green, by way of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who wrote two of my favorite "young adult" movies of the past few years
(500) Days of Summer
and The Spectacular Now) touches subjects and grazes metaphors (other ones) of these two kids trying to eke out an existence despite not only the traps of their bodily handicaps, but of the spirit, as well. It is a rare movie that considers the concept of survivor's guilt and builds a character arc around it that embraces life, the moment, and the preciousness of it all.

But, it is not a "weepie."

It's that smart.


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