About halfway through my screening for The Fault in Our Stars the tears started. In front of me, behind me, to my sides, I could hear the sniffles. Clean tissues were passed politely down rows of emotionally overwhelmed moviegoers. Used tissues crammed into handbags. And they didn't stop. From the halfway point until the credits the tears and sniffles varied in numbers and vigor, but they did not stop.
The closest thing I've seen to it in recent memory was the reaction to Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" in Les Miserables, which left a packed audience in puddles, but they had dutifully recovered within two scenes. This was nearly an hour of non-stop tears. Such is the power of a movie seemingly engineered to thrust a knife into our softest heart tissues and twist until we have no more tears to give. The Fault in Our Stars might be the most effective tear-jerker I've ever seen in the theater. That effectiveness says something about the movie, but what?
The cynical view is that it's manipulative. But I don't believe it. John Green is too sincere a writer, and his book is left too much in tact, for me to believe there's a purposeful attempt to convince a teenage audience that emotion is the same as meaning. The only reason I acknowledge this viewpoint is because it's the intuitive argument against the movie. Sincerity is often embarrassing to all parties, and arouses suspicion in cynical minds — enough suspicion undoubtedly to move its letter grade from an A to a B in many critics' estimations.
This is a film that was made for moviegoers who've either outgrown knee-jerk cynicism or are too young to have developed the peer-pressured habit of it. The emotions are heightened by the ever-present specter of a death that looms closer and gentler than the leering reaper of a thousand other films. And if you step into a theater to see this movie, I recommend you either come ready to plug into the sparking socket of its emotional availability or get out. Trying to watch The Fault in Our Stars from an emotionally aloof or condescending position will only leave you bitter. And no one will be better for it.
But let's digress for a moment into what the movie is actually about.
Shailene Woodley, an actress unrivaled in the arena of teenage authenticity, plays Hazel Grace, a 16-year-old who travels with an ever-present oxygen tank and cannula stuck in her nose. She's been granted a reprieve from life-threatening thyroid cancer after a made-up miracle drug called Phalanxifor helped her beat the disease into a submission from which it could arise at any moment and take her life. Like the book, the movie is told from her point of view.
Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, Hazel finds herself falling for a charming 17-year-old named Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), whom she meets at a support group. The whole movie is this love story, which in itself isn't that remarkable, and that's kind of the genius. It's easy to relate to this relationship, which feels like it could be a story you lived in high school. The difference is the cancer. The difference is death. Like a drug, its presence heightens the meanings and projected emotions of every interaction. We find ourselves reading into language and analyzing behaviors in a way we'd never do as healthy people interacting with healthy people. Mix that with the already heightened experience of adolescence, and everything brims and swirls and spills over the top. Nothing is containable anymore. The male equivalent of this is movies like Rebel Without a Cause or The Outsiders, both of which achieve the same ratcheting-up of emotional stakes not through sickness, but through violence.
If I seem defensive, it's because The Fault in Our Stars is ripe for dismissal. Strike one: It's sappy YA-drama. Strike two: It's about teenagers. Strike three: It has a huge online following of (mostly female) fans who quote the book as fervently as any Twilight fan ever spoke the words of Stephenie Meyer. Add those ingredients together and you get about a billion eye rolls from males ages 16 to 34. The book's association with the long and enduring genre of young adult cancer doesn't help, making it look like part of a group that, as a whole, deserves no attention from anyone not pointedly trying to make themselves cry. But The Fault in Our Stars is a story worth telling. It humanizes childhood cancer. Its characters are easy to know, and they help remove the stigma of other-ness that surrounds the disease. And if it takes a few tears to make this very real problem a little more real to everyone, well so be it. I'll give you my tissues.