They called it a miracle.
It came when Hazel Grace was 13, as her young life was being devoured by cancer. Her parents and doctors watched helplessly as the girl—bald, bedridden, shackled by tubes—slipped slowly from them.
And then she rallied. Recovered a bit. She was put on an experimental drug that, to everyone's surprise, worked. Hazel survived. And now, four years later, she's still doing it.
But even miracles in this broken world aren't always what we'd like them to be. Yes, Hazel is breathing, but weakly, painfully. She's tethered to an oxygen tank, unable to last for more than a few seconds without it. Her world has grown small, almost claustrophobic. Sometimes she sits and stares at the old, ratty swing set her father built for her in happier times, remembering what it was like to swing and slide and run.
She cannot run now. She can barely climb stairs. She's still dying, she believes. Just in slow motion.
Her parents think Hazel is depressed and send her to a cancer support group, hoping she'll make some friends. And while Hazel hates the group, she does meet Augustus there. Gus knows something about cancer himself, having lost most of a leg to the disease not long ago. More importantly, he knows something about life and living. And when he asks to hear Hazel's story, he doesn't want to know about her cancer story, he wants to know about her personal one—what she loves and hates, what she hopes and fears.
So she blurts out her love for the book An Imperial Affliction—a story about cancer that ends in mid-sentence when the narrator, Anna, either dies or grows too sick to write. As a literary device, it works: Life often ends inconveniently with so much undone. Those with cancer know that better than most. But the ending's left Hazel feeling unsettled, wondering, What happens to Anna's mother? Her friends? What of the Tulip Man? Alas, there are no answers. The author, Peter Van Houten, is a recluse and never answers fan mail.
Gus, of course, refuses to accept defeat. He does a little sleuthing, finds the author and writes to him. Shockingly, the man writes back—insinuating that their answers await in Amsterdam.
It's practically a miracle, almost as stunning as Hazel's remission, a surprise too extraordinary to be believed. But the world is no less broken, Hazel no less sick. And sometimes even miracles aren't what we'd like them to be.
Death hangs over The Fault in Our Stars like the stars themselves, permeating every character and every interaction. And yet in the midst of mortality we see at least a sliver of something alive. Even in pain, hope can be found, we're told. Even in disappointment, meaning comes.
Loving someone, truly, through severe sickness, isn't easy. We see others fail under the pressure. But no matter what circumstances bring, Gus and Hazel care for each other throughout, often giving something of themselves in the process.
They're both heroic characters in their own ways, facing disease and circumstance with as much grace and courage as they can muster. Hazel's last few years have been something of a living sacrifice as she tries to cushion the blow of the inevitable pain that's coming for her parents. Gus wants to live a life of meaning—one filled with adventure and importance, so that when he does go, he's known and loved by millions.
There's a little merit in both of those strategies. But when Gus and Hazel get together, they get a better sense of what the beauty of life is really about. Hazel moves beyond responsibility and finds joy in her difficult life. And when she learns that, should she die, her parents won't die with her, that they're making plans for a life without her, she treats it as the best of gifts: the idea that she won't necessarily destroy everyone around her. And Gus, through Hazel, comes to understand that it's not so critical to be loved by throngs, as long as you've loved by and have changed the lives of a few. Or even just one.
Hazel finds solace while visiting the house of Anne Frank, the diary-writing Jewish girl killed in the Nazi Holocaust. "Where there is hope, there is life," we hear Anne's words playing in the background. "Think of all the beauty in everything around you. And be happy."
Unlike most teenage love stories, parents come across pretty well here. While Hazel and her folks have their moments of tension, there's no question about how much they love one another.
Hazel's support group takes place in the basement of an Episcopal church and is led by a cancer survivor who's a fervent—and, in Hazel's eyes, goofy—Christian. He sings a song that includes the words, "Christ is your friend and He'll be there to the end." And he rolls out a carpet depicting the Savior, telling participants standing on it that they're "literally in the heart of Jesus." As the story proceeds, then, the idea of literally being in the heart of Jesus, when they're literally in a church basement, is sometimes mocked.
Christianity is treated more reverentially during a funeral, wherein a priest reads Psalm 23 and people say a prayer. (Still, a much-loathed antagonist crashes the funeral and lets loose a quip about having to "fake pray.")
Both Hazel and Gus think a lot about what might come after death. Gus fears oblivion in this life while hanging on to a belief in at least some sort of afterlife, saying he wants to crash his own funeral as a ghost. Hazel's more cynical, telling Gus she doesn't believe in angels but she may believe in God, and while she'd like to believe in an afterlife she'd need more proof first. Someone suggests that her life has no meaning and her disease is a "failed experiment in mutation."
Eighteen-year-old Gus and 17-year-old Hazel are attracted to each other from the beginning. And while Hazel tries to keep him at arm's length for a while, their platonic relationship goes kablooey in Amsterdam. The two share a tender kiss in Anne Frank's house. Then they tumble into Gus' hotel room and have sex.
The scene shows Hazel and Gus taking off each other's shirts, and she undoes her bra. (We see her from the back.) They caress and kiss as they give in to their passion. Afterwards, both are seen mostly naked, with the sheet covering only the most critical body parts. And it's worth noting that much is made of Gus' previously virginal "condition" ... and that this union is seen as the perfect end to it. The couple cuddles and kisses elsewhere.
Gus' friend Isaac makes out with his girlfriend in a parking lot, and we see him kneading her (clothed) breast. Later, Isaac, who has lost both eyes to cancer, comments on the size of another girl's breasts. "I'm blind, but I'm not that blind," he says.
We see Hazel's mom wearing just a bath towel. Hazel cracks a joke about getting herpes.
Grief and anger cause Isaac to egg his ex's house and car (with lots of help from Gus and Hazel), also to demolish (with permission) some of Gus' sports trophies. Gus smashes a glass. Gus' favorite book is based on his favorite video game—one filled, he admits (and we briefly see), with violence and blood.
Cancer is a violent disease, and we see its ravages here. Someone dies from it. When Isaac, Hazel and Gus are all together, Gus quips that they have four eyes, five legs and two-and-a-half working sets of lungs between them.
Crude or Profane Language
One very forceful f-word is used as a sexually derived insult. Also, a half-dozen s-words and a smattering of other bad words, including "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is used as an expletive about 30 times, twice paired with "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Gus clamps an unlit cigarette in his mouth as a metaphor—allowing the instrument of death to sit between his teeth, powerless. (We see him with it throughout the story.) He and Hazel are served champagne during a fancy dinner in Amsterdam (where it's legal for 16-year-olds to drink "adult" beverages that contain less than 15% alcohol). Both teens are very enthusiastic about its taste, and Gus tells the waiter they'll need a bit more of it. They pop open another bottle during a sad picnic back in the States.
It's clear that a man Gus and Hazel meet is an alcoholic. He asks his assistant to bring him another drink before he's even had breakfast, and he offers the kids Scotch. We see him regularly taking swigs from a flask.
Hazel jokes about getting a fake ID and "taking" pot.
Other Negative Elements
We're asked to watch as someone is overcome with nausea.
"Apparently, the world is not a wish-granting factory," Gus says sadly.
It's a truth we all know. Even we Christians, whom the movie portrays as fairly naive, see that all too well. We wish it was. We want our happily ever after endings. But we know that happiness on earth is fickle and fleeting.
In The Fault in Our Stars (based on John Green's best-selling young adult novel) we find, indeed, that the stars haven't been especially kind to these two lovers. They don't have the time we'd wish for them—time to get jobs and have kids, to grow up and grow old. They've been given a finite number of days together—and even those days are filled with the looming problems and anxiety that cancer inevitably brings. And whenever it seems like something wonderful might finally happen, it goes awry. Each star they cling to, including each other, has a fault inside—a scratch, a split.
But even given such faulty stars, the two find joy and fulfillment. They have each other. They're loved. They live. Yes, maybe their days are built on borrowed time, but it's better than no time, and Hazel confesses that she's "grateful for our little infinity."
"You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world," Hazel says. "but you do get to choose who hurts you." That's a strangely powerful statement, I think.
Sadly, one fault Hazel and Gus share is that they don't always make the wisest of choices. They sleep together. And they prefer to see themselves as pawns of the stars, not beloved by those stars' Creator.
This isn't an anti-Christian film, exactly—just spiritually uncertain. Nor is it saturated in sex or depravity. This isn't a bad movie, really. In many ways, it's quite good.
But here's the thing: Because it is quite good—a persuasive, emotional story with strong, positive messages about sacrifice, hard truths and true love—the bad stuff can come off as more persuasive than usual. It's harder to see a loving God yourself when the characters you grow to care about can't, or won't. It's harder to object to premarital sex while weepily watching Hazel and Gus—teens who might never get the chance to ever have sex again—get so much pleasure and fulfillment from it.
The Fault in Our Stars is, I suppose, a little like its title. For all its sparkly power, it has scratches and splits. We know immediately when a movie like Noah drifts away from its moorings. But it's hard to see a film with crystal-clear eyes when you're always dabbing them with a Kleenex.