Monday, June 9, 2014

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS - not a film about cancer, a film about character

When I was working as a reader, there was a particular breed of script that I came to dread almost as much as my much-loathed torture porn: the "terminal illness grief porn script."  In terms of specs I hated, torture porn was more offensive, but this sort of overwrought melodrama was far more common.  I saw so many scripts about people dealing with cancer, people dealing with their kid's cancer, people dealing with their cancer and their kid's cancer while their own father wastes away with Alzheimer's... you get the picture.

Writers sometimes want to deal with weighty matters.  They think that's the ticket to an Oscar script - a story about terminal disease with the main objective in bumming the audience out in the misguided belief that making an audience sob is both easy and a benchmark of quality.  I'm pretty sure that at some point in this blog, I've given the advice "Do NOT writer your terminal illness/AIDS/Cancer spec!"

Writing a script about cancer is a hack writer mistake. It usually just leads to awful stories that swim in false sentimentality.  THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, however, is not a film about cancer. It's a film about people, people who happen to have cancer.  Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber from the novel by John Green, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is a movie that everyone looking to write well-rounded characters should study.  There's not a moment of the script that doesn't feel genuinely character-driven.  It's a virtue shared by Neustadter & Weber's last effort THE SPECTACULAR NOW, which I previously raved about and put on my Top Ten List of last year's films.

I've not read the novel by John Green, so I have no idea what elements of the screenplay are totally unique and which ones are literal translations of the novel.  The fact remains that adapting a great book is more than just retyping the dialogue.  The two mediums accomplish character development in very different ways.  So even if this translation is extremely faithful to the spirit of Green's novel, that doesn't diminish what Neustadter & Weber have accomplished here.

Our protagonist is a teenage girl named Hazel, played wonderfully by Shailene Woodley.  She's been dealing with cancer for several years now and as it has spread to her lungs, she requires a portable oxygen tank in order to breathe.  It also means that her condition is terminal.  When we are introduced to her, she's dealing with this the way I imagine most of us would, being bluntly and slightly annoyed with how everyone around her deals with her cancer in touchy-feeley ways.  She's forced to attend a self-help group, but seems to find the whole exercise a waste of time.  There's even an undercurrent that suggests she feels this pageantry only feeds false hope and platitudes.

It is at one of these meetings she encounters an 18 year-old cancer survivor named Augustus Waters.  Cancer took his right leg below the knee, but he's in remission right now and is mostly there to support his friend, who is about to lose his second eye to some sort of disease.  Augustus is the sort of sweet, non-threatening and impossibly charming teenage boy who only exists in Young Adult novels.

If there's a male equivalent to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, Augustus would probably qualify. He knows how to flirt with Hazel just enough to make her laugh and blush, but not make her uncomfortable in a bad way.  Much like THE SPECTACULAR NOW, the movie really captures that pure feeling of first teenage-love.  There's cute banter, followed by hanging out, the trading of beloved books, late night texting and developing inside jokes.  The film revels in the sort of innocence that we seem to have lost in teen romance for some time now.

There was a point that it dawned on me that these two had been hanging out for over a half-hour of screentime and the movie hadn't gone anywhere near the issue of sex.  There were no raging hormones, no overt sexual insecurities or angst about losing one's virginity.  It feels like a lot of teen movies today can't help but kick off their relationships on one of those notes. (And there's nothing wrong with that when it's done well, mind you.)  It was a real breath of fresh air that their meet-cute didn't involve some sort of awkward hook-up at the start.  The movie really knows how to set them up as "friends" while moving them towards that ambiguous "are we friends or are we more?" stage.

And yes, their mutual virginity eventually does become an issue the film raises, but even then it feels understated.  Their individual sexual insecurities feel real and the movie presents them well while laying the groundwork for later progression.  When the two finally consummate their relationship, it feels earned.  Too often, sex scenes in films are there just to titillate, but Woodley and her co-star Ansel Elgort turn it into a moving moment of connection between the two.

(It's also interesting to contrast the film's mature handling of teen sexuality with the utter ineptitude of an earlier project Woodley appeared in, the ABC Family series THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER.  Though that show barely went 30 seconds without mentioning the word "sex" and every single plotline on the show was tied to the sex lives of the teens, it played as though it was written by aliens whose only exposure to human behavior were magazine articles about the teen hook-up culture.  It's remarkable that was the first thing I saw Shailene Woodley act in, giving performances that carried no hint of her true talent. It's kind of like if "Octopus's Garden" was your first exposure to the Beatles.)

So much of the film builds to that moment without a plot overtly ferrying us there. Aside from an impending trip to Amsterdam, there's no overt goal that the characters are working toward. The story momentum is entirely built on the growing connection between these two characters.  That's an incredibly hard needle to thread without the script seeming directionless.  Yet, when you want the film, that deceptively appears to be accomplished with no effort at all.

And then the movie breaks our heart.

Augustus reveals that his cancer has returned in an aggressive way. We've spent so much of the film steeling ourselves for Hazel's condition to get worse that this is a gut punch we don't see coming. One of the harder things to see is how this robs Augustus of his breezy spirit.  Hazel clearly has kept a lot of her insecurities about death inside for a while, but in a weird way, she seemed to have accepted it.  She might not be at peace with the idea, but she's not kidding herself that this is going to end any way but her death.

Augustus, on the other hand, had faced that moment and thought he beat it.  It took his leg, but he clearly expected that the be the price he had to pay.  You get the sense that death had become an abstraction for him in a way that it no longer was for Hazel.  When he crashes, he crashes hard.  A voiceover from Hazel says that she wishes she could say that his condition didn't rob him of his smile or his sense of humor, but that that would be a lie.  Her delivery of that line says more than three scenes of Augustus lashing out in self-pity could.

Seeing him broken like this hurts us too. He's the guy who made us smile in the first act, the guy we wanted to see get Hazel out of her shell.  There's a profound unfairness to the fact that all of that means nothing - the cancer's going to get him too.

I like that the movie doesn't give us a death scene.  We're not there at his final moments.   In fact, once the film establishes his decline, we seem to spend more time on his "good days" than his bad ones.  I think that's what makes it such a gut punch when Hazel's voiceover reveals he's gone. There's no catharsis granted by seeing him slip away while totally at peace. We don't get to say goodbye. He's there, and then he's gone.  All that's left is to watch Hazel devastated by her own grief.

This isn't cheap grief-porn.  Audiences don't leave THE FAULT IN OUR STARS with red, swollen eyes because of some hack manipulation.  We cry because for two hours, Augustus Waters and Hazel were our friends. They were real. And then something bad happened to them.  First we had to deal with how it changed them, and then we had to deal with how it took them.

This is a story about love and about appreciating life. It's a story about growing up and dealing with all that entails.  But most of all, it's a story about Hazel and Augustus.

And it's most definitely not "a story about cancer." It's so much more than that.


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  2. Spoiler alert about his cancer coming back would have been nice. Love reading your breakdowns Zuul.