'The Fault in Our Stars': a love story

Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley star in "The Fault in Our Stars." (CNS/Fox)
Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley star in "The Fault in Our Stars." (CNS/Fox)

by Rose Pacatte

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Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is in her 16th year of life and fourth year of thyroid cancer. The chemo has severely damaged her lungs, so she needs constant oxygen. She doesn't go anywhere without the tank and plastic tether that keeps her going.

Her mom, Frannie (Laura Dern), drops a less-than-enthusiastic Hazel off at the local Episcopal church so she can join in a support group for teens coping with cancer. The group leader, Patrick (Mike Birbiglia), is a cancer survivor who means well and tries to spiritualize with their experiences by having them sit around a rug he's made with Jesus' Sacred Heart in the center. Isaac (Nat Wolff) has already lost one eye to cancer and will soon lose the other and his gorgeous girlfriend. His ride to the group is his friend Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort), who has been cancer-free for a year and a half. He lost one leg from the knee down in his effort to survive.

Gus cannot take his eyes off of Hazel, and he asks for her full name. From that point on, he always calls her "Hazel Grace." She mostly calls him "Augustus Waters." When they walk outside, Gus puts a cigarette in his mouth, and Hazel Grace is astounded that he fought cancer but is going to smoke something that will give him cancer again. But he explains that he will not light it as it is a metaphor: to put that which will kill him in his mouth and not give it the power to kill him.

And their little infinity within infinities of a love story begins.

I almost don't want to tell you any more of the story. I want you to see the film and read the book by John Green, who was once a chaplain at a children's hospital. I want you to feel the intelligence and wit of the characters and hear, really hear, the voice of the story's teller, Hazel Grace. I don't know who would name their child Hazel these days (except for Julia Roberts), but the name means "commander." If you research the name further, it is said that those with this name are good at analyzing and understanding, that they desire love, family and a stable home. Combined with the name "Grace," which means blessing and brilliance, we have a picture of our heroine. She is a strong, magnetic young woman filled with strength and blessing. Hazel Grace wants to live for the moment, unsure of what comes next.

Then there is "the metaphorically inclined" Augustus Waters, age 18. His name means "majestic," "grandeur," "magnificent" and "dignity." When you see the film, you will see that Augustus is a transformative character whose beauty and bearing reveal a sharp intellect, wit, and a great heart. Augustus has one fear: oblivion. That he will die and no one will know he has ever lived.

I don't want to tell you that Hazel Grace's hobby is reading and rereading a book, An Imperial Affliction, by her favorite author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), an American living in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam. The main character in his book dies in the middle of a sentence, and Hazel Grace needs to know what happens to those who are left behind. As for Gus' hobby, he is fairly content with his well-appointed man-cave and video games.

And I really don't want to tell you that Augustus uses his yet unused cancer wish from a wishing foundation to take Hazel Grace and her mother to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten, who has refused to answer Hazel's questions via email.

Then, after a magical dinner (a gift from Van Houten), they meet the author, and he is a total alcoholic jerk. To make up for the disaster, his secretary takes the couple to visit the attic where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. There is a mystical synchronicity here, two young people dealing with cancer and facing death and the life force that was Anne Frank (1929-1945). The film is a fitting tribute to Anne Frank's memory, as this year we commemorate what would have been her 85th birthday.

Woodley is excellent as Hazel Grace, but Elgort as Augustus Waters is gently compelling and luminous. With this film, I think his star has been born. Woodley will go on to play many roles well, but I think relative newcomer Elgort will always be Augustus Waters.

"The Fault in Our Stars" is a movie about life told by young people who are facing death. Author Green culled elements of the story from the many brave young people he knew as a chaplain for children, but he especially drew from his friendship with a courageous and funny girl named Esther Earl, whom he met at a Harry Potter convention. She died of thyroid cancer at the age of 16. (You can search for her name on YouTube and catch her funny and smart video entries. I recommend this clip her family put together when her book, This Star Won't Go Out, was released this year.)

The young people do discuss God, belief and the afterlife, but they are children of our culture. It seems they have been only lightly churched, and faith does not have a central place in their lives in the film. (The book allows for more faith expression, especially by Gus' parents.) But these topics are part of their existential exploration of life's meaning and whether their having been born even matters. This is something young people do think about, and I imagine the rest of us do, as well.

Here, as in the novel, the two young people sleep together once, but the scene is not explicit. It could have been left out without diminishing the story. Yes, having sex outside of marriage is objectively wrong. Yet because teens are reading the novel (almost 11 million copies have been sold in 46 languages) and will be seeing the movie anyway, parents, clergy, catechists and pastoral ministers can take this opportunity to talk to young people about the beauty of God's gift of sex and its rightful place in marriage and its role in our lives. Add to this conversation alcohol abuse (Van Houten) and other addictions. As for smoking, Augustus Waters takes care of this vice very well. Hazel Grace and Augustus are looking death in the face and sharing life throughout the book. Their having sex in this very, very brief part of the film (and book) is not something that I or any pastoral person would condone or encourage, but this and their other less-than-perfect deeds in the book, such as egging a car, are something we can understand. They are kids, and they are dying. The loss of things yet to come is the most poignant part of the film for me.

My sister is a hospice nurse who mostly cares for adult patients who are terminally ill, but once in a while, a child patient comes into her orbit. She told me of a man in his 90s who screamed at her, "Why is this happening to me?", then told the story a young girl who lived with so much joy and died at 12 with so much grace. Then my sister said to me, "You know, I believe that no one dies until they have nothing left to learn." "The Fault in Our Stars" seems to bear this out.

By the way, the title is derived from Shakespeare, and the novel's fictional book, An Imperial Affliction, is from an Emily Dickinson poem, "There's a certain Slant of light," that refers to despair.

Parents who have lost a child or who have a sick child will be encouraged by this film, I think. It shows that their children worry about them and love them above everyone else.

There's no surprise in "The Fault in Our Stars," and I haven't given away the plot because the plot is made up of the stages of life and loving, not death and dying. How people die isn't important in the story -- it's how they live.

For those who are worried that the film might not live up to the book: I don't think you will be disappointed.

At the dinner in Amsterdam, the waiter serves the young people champagne that they sheepishly accept and explains that Dom Pérignon, who invented champagne, "called out to his fellow monks, 'Come quickly; I am tasting the stars!' "

I think you will taste the stars when you see "The Fault in Our Stars." It is a love story for our time that encourages us to remember, "Love is stronger than death."

The film has a BK rating -- bring Kleenex.

By the way, on Goodreads, readers have posted 58 pages' worth of their favorite quotes from The Fault in Our Stars. The film has also broken all records for pre-sales for a romantic drama in Fandango's history.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

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