The shrill screams of excited teen girls. That was the first thing my daughter and I noticed as we approached Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater for last week’s premiere of The Fault in Our Stars. Their shrieks rolled down the street in tidal waves, as hundreds of Stars lovers celebrated the arrival of a movie they’d been awaiting for more than two years.
"I know I’m one of them," my 14-year-old, Lizzie, whispered to me, "but, honestly, all these fangirls are making me cringe." We’d both read the book, and like millions of others (many of whom rushed to theaters this weekend, making the film an instant hit), we’d both fallen for the story of two teenagers with cancer, Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort), who forge a connection despite their illnesses. As a mercifully healthy high-school freshman, my daughter may have been free of the teens’ life-and-death worries, but she could relate to their bantering friendship, awkward flirtation — and need to separate from their parents. As we had prepared to leave for the event, she did her blasé-teen best to pretend that slipping into my black wedges and heading to the city for a big movie premiere was just another night at the movies. But her façade didn’t last. Entering the theater we passed Woodley, looking every bit a star in a pollen-yellow strapless gown. "I’m cool outside," Lizzie murmured, "but inside, I’m jumping up and down."
Before it was a hit movie, The Fault in Our Stars — like The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent — was a bestselling young adult novel. It was my daughter’s discovery first, and she shared it with me. But unlike those other action-oriented books, TFIOS was not a fantasy, or a dystopia, or something that happened far, far away among immortals and teen gladiators – unless you happened to consider suburban Indianapolis exotic.
And the primary battle waged in TFIOS is against cancer – at least on the surface. Because the story of lung-damaged Hazel, lugging around her oxygen tank, and her gradual romantic awakening to one-legged Augustus was really so much more about love than disease. As Lizzie explained as the lights dimmed: “They’re all dying – and that makes them seem more alive.”
Hazel’s no-bull attitude appealed to Lizzie and me. She calls life as she sees it, because she doesn’t have time to dissemble. When Hazel’s mother, Frannie (Laura Dern), suggests her daughter is depressed and should attend a support group, Hazel shoots back: “The problem isn’t depression. it’s dying.”
At this point in the film, Lizzie’s eyeliner had already begun to run. “She sounds like me,” she whispered. And she was right. Hazel was such a terrific character because she was a real teenager – moody, opinionated, and on her way to become a grownup. You didn’t have to be sick to relate to her.
My first tear appeared when Frannie dropped Hazel at support group – where Hazel first meets Augustus. I cried because I identified with the mom. Her perky positivity so clearly masked deeper, darker emotions.
"She really is like you," Lizzie said. I was honored: Frannie was a model mother. And I was a little irritated, too, because she was also annoying and a little frantic. This may sound contradictory, but moms don’t stop being human when they have kids. We’re a contradictory lot. I related to Frannie, but as terrific as she was, she was also more of a helicopter mom than me. Sometimes it’s hard to give my daughter space – to fail, to fall in love, to wear unattractive outfits – but the trick is to be close enough to catch her, yet far enough to let her breathe. While I might be a more laid-back mom on the surface — the cool mom who took her daughter to a movie premiere that ended late on a school night — I’m often feeling just as frantic as Frannie does.
And, at times, just as helpless, too. At one point in the film, Hazel receives an email invitation from her favorite author to meet him in Amsterdam. Responding to Hazel’s excited whoop, Frannie rushes into her daughter’s bedroom. Informed of the news, Frannie’s mood shifts from fear to enthusiasm to reluctance. There isn’t enough money for a European trip, Frannie laments.
Once again, I became verklempt. The cash crunch hits close to home, particularly in these difficult past six months since my husband was laid off, ending our health care coverage and challenging my ability to protect my daughter from unpleasant financial realities. In the movie, I wanted Hazel to go to Amsterdam; in real life, I wanted Lizzie to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. The difference: Frannie made her daughter’s wish happen.
And while I wanted Hazel to embrace Augustus, I was iffier when it came to Lizzie’s love life.
Augustus, as he is written — and as played by Elgort — is easy to fall in love with. He isn’t a tool. He’s a big-hearted boy who sees this truthful young woman for who she really is.
Lizzie and I see the romance differently. I look at first love from the perspective of a woman married for 27 years, while she idealizes it in her future as a panacea that will jump-start her real life. She is so much more swept away on the romance of it all. Augustus reminds her of a young man who she knew from home that she liked — maybe loved — but they lacked the connection that Augustus and Hazel have from the first moment they locked eyes.
As a mother, I am cautious, like Frannie. I can only hope my daughter’s first love will be as empathetic and wry as Augustus – and maybe a little less self-involved and judgmental than my freshman college sweetheart. Watching my daughter grow up, I feel every pull and tug and yank – and try not to overreact. When Lizzie rhapsodizes about a boy one week, curses him the next, and then returns to rhapsodizing, I try to bite my tongue and not scream, “Stay away from that loser!” I don’t always succeed.
I’m not perfect – but neither is Frannie. Who is? Seeing Stars with my daughter highlighted some of my maternal insecurities. But it also reminded me that despite my flaws, I’m easily as committed and fun as Frannie.
As the credits rolled, Lizzie leaned over and said, “You cry because it’s relatable, not tragic.”
When did she become so wise?
Afterward, Lizzie and I agreed that if we ever had an afternoon to hang out in normal America with a teen heroine, it would be more fun with Hazel than Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan. We could dive deep into our hearts and then laugh at our “hamartia,” a word we learned from Hazel that means fatal flaw, or Achilles heel. As a family of readers, we weren’t intimidated by Hazel’s use of big words; she felt like one of us. But, then, there was a legion of fans that felt the same way — and it was cool to be part of that cultural scrum of good girls who speak their minds.
When we exited the Ziegfeld Theater with the throng of dazed, weepy, star-gazing teens and their parents, Lizzie said, “Mom. Stop.” She pulled me over to a shadowy side of the theater plaza. “Oh, no,” I thought. “What now? What did she want that I couldn’t deliver?” But she folded me into a hug, right there in front of other people, full frontal, and put her head on my shoulder and cried into my hair. “I love you,” she said.
Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox