Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…
Usually when we read the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes we think of “the time to die” as when our hair is gray, or for males, thinning or gone. Not so for Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). She is just 16, and he is a couple of years older, and both are afflicted with cancer that threatens to end their young lives in the near future.
Hazel has suffered from thyroid cancer since she was 13. She would have died were it not for a miracle drug, but the cancer could reappear at any moment, and now she must wheel along a small oxygen tank wherever she goes. A place that she does not want to go is the cancer support group at St. Paul Episcopal Church. The youth minister there had a brief bout of cancer during which he wove a large rug with the Catholic image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at its center. He ineptly sings a song about Jesus and invites the participants “into the heart of Jesus.” This seems to be of interest to no one, especially Hazel, who has been suffering from depression.
She does notice a newcomer to the group Augustus, a former athlete who jokingly shows off the artificial leg replacing the one lost to cancer. He also fixes his eyes on her, coming up and befriending her after the session. He has come in support of his friend His best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), whose cancer has cost him his vision on one eye and will soon blind the other one as well.
Gus almost drives her away at their first meeting when he takes out a cigarette and places an unlit one between his teeth. Totally upset at this seeming reckless behavior, Hazel lays into him. He takes the cigarette out of his mouth and explains, “They don’t kill you unless you light them. And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do it’s killing. A metaphor.”
Part of their getting to know each other is to exchange favorite books, his a fantasy (or sci-fi?), hers a book about a young person dying of cancer, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Gus is upset that the novel ends in mid sentence. Hazel too has questions as to what happens after the abrupt conclusion, but the author, after writing this one novel has left America to live in Amsterdam. Hazel is thrilled when Gus manages to contact Van Houten via the Internet, and he indicates he would respond to her. She writes him concerning her questions, but he says he will not commit any answer to writing, but if she were ever in Amsterdam, he would welcome a meeting with her.
By now we are so enveloped in the lives of these two appealing young people that we can overlook the novelishness of their means of being able to go to Amsterdam—with Mom along, of course, to help care for Hazel. Checking into a posh hotel, they are told that Mr. Van Houten is paying their bills, including a night out at an expensive restaurant where the wine they are offered probably begins at $100 a bottle. It is a memorable evening that promises an exciting tomorrow. However, when Van Houten’s aide/companion Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) greets them warmly and ushers them into the great man’s presence, the meeting turns sour. It soon becomes evident that it was she, and not the author, who had sent them the emails and had contacted the hotel and restaurant. Van Houten, obviously a heavy drinker embittered by life, belittles and insults the youth for their questions, so much so that they walk out angrily after Gus tells him off. Lidewij catches up with them outside, explaining that she had set up the meeting in the hope that it would help him. To make amends, she arranges for them to get into the Anne Frank House, now a popular museum dedicate to another teenager who had lived under a death threat.
This was a moving sequence (despite what some unsentimental critics have said!), with Gus wanting to help Hazel with her oxygen tank up the steep stairs of the multi-story house, but she preferring to struggle with it by herself. It is obvious that their world is being enlarged by this exposure to a teenager in the past who also struggled with the unfairness of life. At times we hear excerpts from Anne’s famous diary. On the upper floor in the cramped attic where Anne also discovered love, they embrace and kiss passionately. Maybe it was a bit over the top having the other tourists break out in applause, but then so did my companion and I.
I have yet to find another reviewer pointing out what the relatively minor character of Lidewij is, a conveyor of grace. Would the pair have made the trip unless she had issued the invitation to visit her employer (or lover?)? Even the disastrous meeting was salvaged by the couple coming into close contact with the short but meaningful life of Anne Frank. I wish we could have seen more of Lidewij!
Director Josh Boone’s film, based on John Green’s popular 2012 young adult novel is not one of those stories in which a cure is found after a long search. The couple expects death to take them, and it does one of them. Beforehand, however, they do ponder it and their own short mortality. Hazel does not believe in an afterlife, but Gus clings to at least a remnant of faith, saying at one point, “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”
It is sad that the very institution dedicated to the good news that life extends beyond the grave is represented by such an inept leader as the youth minister depicted in the film. Having been deeply involved in youth ministry and in contact with dozens upon dozens of them over the years, I was always impressed by their intelligence and creativity—and thus was disappointed to learn that author John Green himself had been a chaplain, yet gives us such a wimpy spiritual leader. These kids deserved better! (For a depiction of a youth minister with genuine depth of faith who came to the aid of a teenager beset by an enormous loss see Soul Surfer.) The parents, although deeply concerned and supportive, also seem to be lacking in spiritual resources.
Hazel and Gus talk about the little infinities of their lives, so she says at one point, “But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.” That they refuse to wallow in self pity or fall into cynicism is a noble thing. She believes that oblivion will be their fate, but as pointed out earlier, he thinks there is something more. He lives in the hope that there will be some remembrance of them, that even given so few years, they can do something memorable.
MLK, who also was conscious that his life would be cut short, famously said that it was not the length of a person’s life that counted, but his character and what he did with this life that mattered. Gus and Hazel, young as they were, experienced love, not just for each other, but for friends as well. We see this in Isaac’s statement that if he could regain his sight, he would not do it, that he did not want to see a world without his friend Isaac. Quite a testimony to the love of a friend who had supported him so well! I am not sure who said the following—I think it was Gus—but it bears attention, ““The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.” If this is so, then Hazel, Gus, and possibly Isaac are indeed heroes. Certainly Lidewij is.
There is the possibility of reconciliation between the arrogant author and the survivor of the pair, right after the graveside service. This is rejected because the survivor is suffering so much and not able to rise above present grief and still smoldering anger at the heartless way the alcoholic Van Houten had treated them in Amsterdam. The force that had impelled the author to come to America and seek out the survivor was not just the letter entrusted to him by the deceased, but I suspect also it was that wonderful agent of grace Lidewij. I like to think that despite his proffered apology being rejected, Van Houten will return to Amsterdam a better man with a healthier relationship with Lidewij. Perhaps a full reconciliation at the graveyard would have made this excellent movie too warm and fuzzy, detracting from its edginess. (Which I believe is what the over the top ending did to the otherwise wonderful teacher movie Mr. Holland’s Opus.)
This is a powerful film that I would love to see discussed by groups made up of people of faith—“non-believers” because they would stop believers from regurgitating all the shallow “explanations” (“God wanted another angel,” etc. as per such films as Contact) for untimely deaths; and believers because they could offer hope.