The Return of the Real Teen

Can The Fault in Our Stars redeem the YA film genre?

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Augustus Waters likes V For Vendetta. He reads novelized adaptations of video games. Unsurprisingly given the era he lives in, he plays video games, entering a zombified trance alongside his friend, Isaac, from the comfort of a pair of V Rockers. Meanwhile, Hazel Lancaster, the object of Augustus’ infatuation, alternates between reading heady, highbrow, dense prose and watching re-runs of The X-Files for fun. Both of them relate to one another through mutual terminal illness—he is happily cancer-free, though he’s down one leg as a result, she’s contending with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs—but they also bond over their shared love for facets of pop culture, from the written word to visual media.

Beyond their unique, personal battles with cancer, in other words, they’re normal kids with all of the boilerplate interests expected of modern teenagers, and that makes their story—Josh Boone’s adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s sick-lit young adult novel—unique among the glut of YA fare that has taken over the multiplex in the last few years. Augustus and Hazel don’t live in a landscape with any echoes of Twilight or The Hunger Games; they live in the real world, the very same world that we live in, with maybe one or two minor flights of fancy thrown in to remind us that we’re actually watching a Hollywood production.

In theory, Augustus and Hazel are themselves members of the target audience for all sundry and varied YA franchises, though one gets the sense from listening to them talk that they wouldn’t be caught dead reading a Stephenie Meyer novel. Instead of spinning a yarn about kids revolting against oppressive totalitarian dictatorships, or initiating ill-advised and frequently one-sided romances with vampires, The Fault in Our Stars engages with the same teenage experiences as its decidedly more spectacular peers, but without any added window dressing. It’s about the bittersweet confusion of young love, the burgeoning pushback against authoritarian (read: adult) figures, and the countless growing pains inherent to the transition from childhood to adulthood, sans genre trappings.

In other words, The Fault in Our Stars directly and realistically confronts the same themes seen in the vast majority of the YA crop instead of shoehorning said themes into a fantasy setting. That almost makes the film feel revolutionary, more so than either The Hunger Games series, movies that have made legitimate waves as the issue of female leads and box office gets more and more of the attention it so richly deserves, or Divergent, a middling effort that borrows liberally from the narrative toolkit of the former production. (Incidentally, Divergent features Shailene Woodley as its lead, just like The Fault in Our Stars. The talent pool for YA productions can’t possibly be that small.) A YA movie that doesn’t lean on sci-fi or Gothic elements to hold up its plot? What a novel idea.

This isn’t to say that The Fault in Our Stars is “new”, per se; this isn’t the first YA film to tackle YA issues through a more honest lens. Movies like Bridge to Terabithia, both Princess Diaries pictures, both Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants pictures, and independent efforts ranging from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to last year’s The Spectacular Now (yet another Woodley vehicle) each grapple with the universal mores of their specialized niche all while remaining in a world that more closely resembles our own. Even the Twilight films follow this path somewhat, intermittently breaking its illusion of authenticity with glittering creatures of the night for nearly five hundred minutes of running time before finally biting the bullet and turning Bella Swan into a walking exemplar of superhuman wish fulfillment.

But of these films, most still play in the sandbox of high melodrama—Bridge frequently retreats into make-believe while The Princess Diaries films go all-in on a totally different kind of wish fulfillment than that of Twilight. Meanwhile, the movies that don’t aim for heightened theatricality tend to unfortunately remain well outside the mainstream’s line of sight, meaning that their target demographic doesn’t get to see them and remains woefully saturated with almost nothing but YA product that almost uniformly follows the same blueprint from one entry to the next. These movies are just action movies that have teenage rather than adult protagonists. With the obvious exceptions aside, nobody really seems all that interested in telling stories about the modern teenager with characters that actually mirror the modern teenager on more substantive levels, and using backdrops that feel familiar.

Which is why The Fault in Our Stars is such an important movie. Artistically and commercially, it’s the best studio YA effort to date that avoids the conventions of the category. Compared to its competition, the film is positively stripped down and unfussy. It doesn’t totally avoid the clutches of melodrama, of course; the forcibly inserted faux-nemesis character of Peter Van Houten, and one mind-bogglingly tasteless moment in Anne Frank’s attic, lends Augustus’ and Hazel’s love story a touch of trumped-up Hollywood magic. But these are the only characteristics found in The Fault in Our Stars that truly ring with the sort of overwrought flourishes that we expect of the YA brand. There are no monsters here, no political and societal ills to overcome, no destiny to fulfill (and in point of fact, you may be caught somewhat off-guard by the direction the film takes in its final act). There’s only life.

And with that, the ever present specter of death. If there’s one area in which The Fault in Our Stars presents an unrecognizable story for the average teenager, it’s in Hazel’s and Augustus’ respective bouts with terminal illness, something that many have never confronted firsthand (or even secondhand). Maybe none of us have ever lived in a totalitarian regime, or, or discovered our ancestral demon-hunting/wizarding/Greek deific heritage, but how many of us have developed one of the two hundred types of cancer, or stood side-by-side with a loved one who has? One might argue that this film doesn’t reflect teen reality at all, only a specific teen reality, and therefore is just as niche as Twilight.

But that’s why The Fault in Our Stars matters: unlike the prevailing majority of its contemporaries, it does reflect reality. No teen in the history of the planet has ever been in a steamy love triangle with a vampire and a werewolf. Plenty of teens have been forced to fight for their lives against one kind of cancer or another (such as osteosarcoma, the most common type of bone cancer in teens, which, hey, surprise, is the exact kind of cancer Augustus has), and plenty of teens still do. In Hazel and Augustus, young survivors have real role models, characters that they can identify with through their shared adversity. Just as Hazel finds a form of catharsis through reading An Imperial Affliction, her favorite (and, sadly, fictional) novel, so too can the kids who comprise the film’s core viewership find their own catharsis in her struggle. They have proximity to her in a way that they just don’t with Katniss Everdeen. (And besides that, the success of The Hunger Games has much more to do with proving that women can be the heroes of blockbuster films just as much as men can.)

Even pushing aside the disease that gives shape to so much of The Fault in Our Stars’ plot, the film is about the average teenager in a way that most other YA yarns aren’t. Hazel and Augustus talk like modern teens; they interact with one another like modern teens; they dress, look and sound like modern teens; they more fully embody their audience, in other words, and the film examines their lives with greater honesty, finding a form of everyday bravery through a considerably more mundane basic conceit than toppling regimes or crossing wands with pure evil. The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t filter its teenage experiences through the veneer of spectacle. It strives to be genuine rather than artificial; that makes the film unexpectedly daring, a heartfelt and truer-to-life outlier with the guts to break from the hallmarks of its archetype. This is, perhaps, the first significant post-Twilight YA movie, a shift away from the ubiquity of the fantastical and toward something more real and, ultimately, more meaningful.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.