Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort star as the teens whose story inspired an infinite pile of Tumblr fan art.
In the last year, it seems like movie studios have learned that audiences actually want to watch movies that center on smart female leads. I know it sounds absurd but, by God, let’s run with it. Somewhere in a flat above Diagon Alley, Hermione Granger is sleeping soundly.
Hollywood has recently pumped out a string of top-grossing movies with dynamic, tough female protagonists: The Hunger Games, Frozen, Maleficent, Divergent, Gravity. This past week, The Fault in Our Stars joined that list. While the teen-centric blockbusters are about trying to save the world, The Fault in Our Stars is a movie about the transience of your own, little life. The film is about life-and-death, but on a personal scale—and that’s why it’s powerful.
Hazel Grace Lancaster is the anchor of The Fault in Our Stars, the new film from director Josh Boone that’s based on John Green’s hit YA novel about cancer and love. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, the basic premise is this: Hazel is a 16-year-old girl with thyroid cancer. The cancer has moved to her lungs. The drug Phalanxifor has bought her some time, but she’s stage four, and she has no illusions about what that means. Barring a miracle, Hazel’s days are numbered – and she is haunted by the knowledge that when she dies, she will destroy her parents’ lives. “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer,” says Hazel.
The reason that The Fault in Our Stars works so well is that its main draw (the teenage love story) is tied so expertly to its emotional core (Hazel’s relationship with her parents). Purely to keep her parents happy, Hazel goes to a support group for other kids with terminal cancer. She meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a one-legged ex-basketball player who carries an unlit cigarette in his mouth and has been in remission for over a year. Her friendship and subsequent romance with Gus is the spark and flash of the movie, but the scenes only highlight the film’s deeper emotional foundation.
As Hazel’s parents, Laura Dern and Sam Trammell appear in a significant number of scenes—more than you’d expect from a genre that usually centers obsessively on its tragic teenage co-stars. Hazel flashes back several times to the moment when she was 13, dying in the ICU, and her mom leaned over her, ravaged with tears, to say, “It’s okay, honey. You can let go. Don’t be afraid.” Hazel’s mom is present almost constantly: sitting outside the support group, perching on the end of Hazel’s bed, waiting in the hotel room on the teenagers’ trip to Amsterdam. By keeping her solidly in the background, the film keeps you aware of her pain without forcing it down your throat. Like Hazel, you are constantly reminded that her life is inextricably tied up with her mom’s.
Parents—played by Sam Trammell and Laura Dern—have a big role for story centered on teens.
The subtlety of these parent-child scenes set up the emotional message of the movie, which is a huge departure from most teenage-love-story messages. Near the end of the movie, Hazel confronts her parents about what they will do when she dies. She guesses that their lives will be over; she is terrified that their lives will be over.
Her parents are surprised. “Losing you will hurt like hell,” her mother says. “But you, of all people, know it’s possible to live with pain.”
And there it is: The message that every teenage girl needs to hear. Life goes on. The world is not about you. Or, it’s sort of about you, but it’s not all about you. You can love and be loved without needing your life to be the most evocative drama the world has ever known. Maybe you only get a few people to really care about you—your boyfriend, your friends, your family. That’s enough. You’re not God.
Even among a sea of strong female characters, Hazel Grace stands out. Despite how she misunderstands feminism in her own life, Shailene Woodley knows exactly how to play a strong, complicated character: She is funny without being an asshole; cynical without being bitter; loving without being infatuated. And most interestingly, the selflessness that could make her unrealistic and ridiculous—this overwhelming fear that she will hurt her parents with her death— also turns out to be her greatest immaturity. Remember: It’s not about you.
Even the soundtrack, featuring Birdy, Ed Sheeran, Grouplove and Lykke Li, feels very 2014; it’s music of this year and this time, but maybe not of five years from now. The same is true of Augustus and Hazel’s romance, and maybe even of Hazel’s life. Every plot twist, from egging an ex-girlfriend’s car to flying to Amsterdam to kissing in the Anne Frank House, is embedded in the reality that your life is precious, but small. It’s leaving even as you speak.
This movie has flaws. Of course it does. Even Ansel Elgort’s winning, almost-humble performance can’t make Augustus Waters less cocky and pretentious. There are soliloquies about love that, while accurately teenaged, make the movie feel more melodramatic and self-obsessed than it should be. But at the film’s core, the way Laura Dern looks at Shailene Woodley—as if she will never be able to look at her enough – is emotionally resonant enough to move past its pretensions.
“If you die,” Laura Dern’s character says.
“When,” Hazel says.
The Fault in Our Stars is about the line between embracing the now and accepting the when—but it’s also about the fact that the world will continue to exist after you die. It’s an almost impossible concept for anyone to grasp, let alone teenage girls. But it’s 2014: why would we expect anything less of them?
Rachel Fields lives in Chicago, subsists on chicken wings and spends most of her time thinking about Meryl Streep’s performance in “The Devil Wears Prada.”