Hollywood usually ignores the fact that young people need to wallow in misery and sob it out sometimes. They’re busy making films where robots ride robot-dinosaurs and fight other robots or where Neil Patrick Harris takes a dump in a hat. They forget that teen morbidity and extreme crying can be just as satisfying as talking machines and bowel movements.
That’s why The Fault In Our Stars is so effective; it pets and flatters its target audience’s mopiest impulses. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is 17 and has cancer. Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is 18 and in remission from cancer that took part of his right leg. Hazel meets her challenges day by day, but Augustus is ostentatiously different, the kind of fictional boy with all the right smirks, all the right moves and all the right words. He's effusive, loquacious and wise beyond his years, his speech peppered with bon mots about love and life and loss and smoking versus not-smoking. It’s maybe almost love. And why would't it be? This kid is a concentrated dose of fantasy.
And then, thanks to this film’s version of Make-A-Wish, the pre-canoodling pair meet their favorite book's author, Peter Van Houten (spiky, hilariously unpleasant Willem Dafoe). He’s a serious bummer. And drunk. And mean. And he’s not interested in telling them the “real” ending of his novel about cancer, one that ends in a much too maddeningly ambiguous manner for two kids who demand resolution.
There’s more, of course, and those are the parts where crying is the law. But it’s the meeting with Dafoe that shines a light on exactly where Fault is coming from and what its priorities are. I’m paraphrasing here, but he tells his young fans that their illnesses are part of an unfortunate social structure of pity that infantilizes the recipients of that pity. He refuses to indulge. He’s horrible about it, of course, but he knows something that adults know: the world is unfair and it owes you nothing, regardless of your bad luck. Accurate, yes, but seriously man, would it kill you to just pretend to be nice to some dying kids?
Not that he matters, anyway. Immediately, Fault retreats from this inconvenient truth. Promises are fulfilled, nothing is left unsaid, punishments are meted out for crimes against sentimentality, and its lovers grow more warm and inviting as the film slows to a very book-faithful crawl. Through it, though, Woodley shines. She’s managed to tap into a kind of everyteen normalcy and empathy that the movies haven’t seen since Molly Ringwald (who, coincidentally, played Woodley's mother on The Secret Life of The American Teenager -- baton passed). When the movie retreats and returns its characters and its audience to the warm plate of promised death cookies, Woodley makes it palatable. They’re made with sugary lies and they’re too sweet for the pancreas of a grown person, but they're still kind of delicious.