The Fault in Our Stars is about two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group, fall in love, and then try to navigate the complicated world of the terminally ill together. I was curious about it because it was a massive box office success, which struck me as odd, given the heavy subject matter. However, it has been so long since I was a teenager myself that I had forgotten how much teens love to think about all the attention and love they would get if they died tragically. As the movie progressed, I realized that the whole thing was predicated on a very specific type of wish fulfillment, one where a beautiful teen who is totally special is afflicted with a disease that gives them unlimited chances to prove how noble they are without making them any less beautiful. Suddenly its success made a lot more sense.
As you can probably already tell, I might be a bit too old for this sort of thing. Still, I can see why someone who was less jaded would love it: Hazel, our lung cancer suffering heroine, is spunky, and Augustus, our hero who lost a leg to cancer, is non-threatening. Hazel is charming, smart and beautiful. Augustus looks like the fifth guy in a boy band - the one no one ever gets a crush on, but who was thrown into the group so they'd have the right number of dudes. He's narrowly on the right side of cute, but he is definitely goofy-looking adjacent, which means he's the exact right level of dreamy to seem approachable. I totally understand why someone would want to see a romance between such relatable characters - but personally, I'm just not the sort of person who gets super excited about boy-band-ish looking boys.
Once I started trying to actively lower my expectations, the movie started to work much better. The Fault in Our Stars treats cancer in a way that felt semi-cartoony, so at first I felt it was dropping the ball on being a solid drama. Then I realized that it wasn't trying to be a story about the battle between dignity and despair - it was trying to be a tearjerker where death was merely a hovering presence that could magically intrude whenever it was time to up the stakes. And it certainly did do that.
I had to downgrade my expectations on the romance side, too. It's central love story leans pretty heavily towards fairy tale ideas of true love, so at first my unsentimental side was coming on strong, pushing me towards sarcasm. At a certain point, however, I accepted that it didn't want to be an insightful portrait of a real relationship. No, its goal was to be a sappy story of first love, and it achieved that.
If it sounds like I'm being condescending - well, I probably am, but that isn't my intention. The truth is that The Fault in Our Stars is halfway decent, and that puts it well ahead of other teen romances I have seen, since those couldn't even make it to the halfway mark. Yes, Hazel and Augustus' initial meet cute was embarrassing, as his supposedly cute behavior just made him seem like a dork who was trying too hard. But as they fell deeper and deeper in love, Augustus and Hazel started to seem less like pretentious teens and more like legitimate human beings. When they were thinking about taking their love to the next level I started cracking boner jokes in my own head, because that's what I always do during romances. This time, however, I felt slightly guilty about profaning their sweet natured affection. That's a lot more than I can say about, say, Twilight, where my mental boner jokes were a silver lining on a particularly dark cloud.
The Fault in Our Stars exists at a specific plateau, where it isn't good enough to appeal to anyone, but it is such a perfect fit for it's target demographic that insulting it feels kind of cynical. The more I analyzed it, the more I felt like a Grinch who was going around ruining people's fantasies, and I didn't want to be that guy; kids should be able to enjoy Christmas as long as they can. Then again, the more I thought about the film's flaws, the more I felt like I was in the right - nobody should believe in Santa Claus forever, because he isn't real. I'm probably not going to reconcile that tension any time soon, so I'm just going to do what I should have done in the first place - order a nice Chinese food dinner and admit that I have no business interacting with this particular celebration.