Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Fault in Our Stars [2014] (directed by Josh Boone, screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, quite faithful to the YA novel by John Green) tells the story of a group of Indianapolis teenagers facing terminal cancer together. 

The basic thrust of the story is that childhood / teenage cancer is so terrible that basically no one except other teenagers and possibly cancer teens' own immediate families could hope to understand.

A rather hapless 30-something Episcopalian youth minister named Patrick (played by Mike Birbiglia) who actually organized the support group through which the teens suffering through their cancer got to know each other is portrayed, both in the book and in the film, as at best sincere but otherwise certainly an idiot.  To perhaps "even things out" the writer of a somewhat edgy book entitled "The Imperial Affliction" about childhood cancer who the lead character here, 16 year old Hazel (played actually very well by Shailene Woodley) initially adored, turns out to be an embittered drunken fool himself (the drunken embittered writter played again quite well by William DaFoe)

To be honest, it doesn't surprise me at all that teens, both healthy and non, have flocked to both the book and now the movie that does in fact exploit teens' natural tendency toward narcissism.

Don't get me wrong, these is plenty of truth in the story.  No teen (or anybody else) deserves to lose one's limbs, eyes, breasts or (like poor hapless 30-something Patrick lost as a teen) one's balls to cancer.  No teen (or anybody else) deserves to lose one's hair, lose control of one's bodily functions, to have one's skin color turn a zombie-like brownish-yellow or orange, or to go into seizures.  Yes, cancer sucks, terribly, BUT ... (and most readers by now would be expecting an inevitable "BUT"):

(1) Honestly folks, no matter how bad it is, it CAN STILL ALWAYS ACTUALLY BE WORSE:

Recently I read another excellent/well-written if also at times biting book by a Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid entitled "How to Make it Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel" in which describing the childhood and young adulthood of his central protagonist (when he was still living "in the village" before he slowly "made his fortune") he writes about the central protagonist's mother's bout with cancer IN WHICH THE FAMILY HAD TO GO AND BUY _HEROIN_ FROM "THE LOCAL STREET CORNER DRUG DEALER" SO THAT SHE'D AT LEAST HAVE SOMETHING FOR THE PAIN.  And the street heroin (self-evidently not-FDA approved ...) had to be administered by the family ...

In my own young adult years (after my own mother died of cancer...) I would go occasionally to Mass at a Catholic Worker Community (I was going to grad school in Los Angeles at the time) and one of the families they had living with them in that Community at the time was a Salvadoran mother and her 6-8 year old son who was missing an arm up to his shoulder.  For some months, I thought that he lost his arm to grenade or a land-mine or something (this would have been the late 1980s / early 90s and there was terrible Cold War Era civil war going on in El Salvador at the time).  INSTEAD, I LEARNED THAT THE POOR 6-8 YEAR OLD WHO WOULD HUG US _WITH HIS ONE ARM_ AT THE "KISS OF PEACE" DURING THE MASS "MERELY LOST HIS ARM" TO _BONE CANCER_.

That image of the 6-8 year old kid hugging me with his one arm has stuck with me and has served to remind me that PART OF THE AWFULNESS OF WAR is that ALL THE OTHER AWFUL TRAGEDIES OF LIFE _STILL HAPPEN_ but ON TOP OF THAT "ORDINARY AWFULNESS" WE ADD A NEW LAYER OF VICTIMS FROM THE ADDED WAR.

I also remembered as a result of this poor 6-8 year old that though 3,000 people died truly awful deaths in 9/11 ... 3,000 people die in the United States every day or two "merely of cancer."

So in some sense I do appreciate this current film as a "revenge of the 'merely Cancer' victims" reminding us plenty of people die each day in homes and hospitals across this country (and indeed across the world) with no memorials built for any of them, except by their own loved ones in cemeteries ... next to other loved ones who died similarly "mundane" if ever tragic deaths before them.

(2) Given the tragedies that exist in this world, I SIMPLY CAN NOT IMAGINE FACING THEM WITHOUT GOD, PERHAPS EVEN BEING PISSED OFF AT GOD (asking why the heck GOD lets these things happen) but to bear this WITHOUT GOD seems to me utterly impossible.

Karl Marx did famously call "Religion the opiate of the people IN A HEARTLESS WORLD."  BUT LOOK, I'M NOT KIDDING ... HAND ME THEN THE OPIUM.  I simply can not imagine facing the disasters of life without feeling God SOMEHOW "at my side" (Psalm 23).  9/11 did teach me that Life is at least at times a "Valley of Tears" (as per the Hail Holy Queen).

Like all of us, I do know plenty of people including close friends who do get through life without believing in God, BUT IT JUST SEEMS SO MUCH HARDER.  The same problems still remain, whether one believes in God or not, but at least if one believes, one has someone to lean on, EVEN IF THERE'S NO ONE PHYSICALLY AVAILABLE TO LEAN ON.

But to the story ... ;-)

The Fault in Our Stars [2014] is principally about two teenagers, Hazel (played again exquisitely by Shailene Woodley) and Gus (played just was well by Ansel Elgort) who face oblivion as a result of their cancer.  Already by the beginning of the story, both have suffered a lot:

Hazel nearly died two years previous, before an experimental drug, but a fluke, she herself calls it a miracle, kicked in.  But her lungs are trashed and so she has to lug around an oxygen tank to help her breath.  And NO ONE KNOWS when the experimental drug will cease to work, or begin to cause side-effects that will eventually kill her anyway.  Yet despite her own suffering, she also carries on with guilt:  As her parents' only child, she fears what will happen to her parents (played again remarkably well by Laura Dern and Sam Tramwell).

Gus, a former, pretty good high school basketball player, with a few trophies to prove it, lost his leg to bone cancer the year before.  He also had a friend Isaac (played by Nat Wolff) who lost one eye to ocular (eye) cancer some years back, and was about to lose the other one well.  Both had enjoyed playing "stupid" "zombie invasion" video-games before ...

All these folks (as well as their parents) find themselves having to deal with suffering that, NO ONE OUGHT TO.  But there they are ...

In perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the story, Hazel and Gus do find themselves remembering the case of Anne Frank the famous Dutch teenager who also had to face oblivion (along with her family) during the Holocaust.  Again, no one should have had to suffer like that either...

But there they all found themselves, facing enormous suffering ... but also with opportunities to find hope, love even joy.

While I didn't appreciate the story's somewhat gratuitous potshots at religion ... certainly one can not but applaud all the characters' decision to seek to make the most of their lives (their "infinities") that they were given (even if their "infinities" were "smaller" than perhaps some other people's "infinities").

We're all honestly asked to do the same.  We are all given this life, all with gifts and with limitations.  And all we're all asked to the best that we can with what we've been given.

Even Hazel remembers at one point that even Mozart will one day be forgotten (if only after "the sun swallows the only earth that we will have ever known").  So the goal isn't to be "Great" ... it's simply to be able to say that one lived, and hopefully to have used one's choices well.  That is, to have been, fundamentally "Good."

Pot-shots at religion aside ... good story.

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