Disguised as a chick flick, The Fault in Our Stars has wooed floods of teen-aged viewers while simultaneously offering a startling commentary on life and death. Sure, it’s a familiar plot (cancer-stricken teens fall in love) and an even more familiar theme (inexplicable suffering), but The Fault in Our Stars strikes up a whirlwind of important questions which will challenge viewers beyond expectations.

18b-lord-answering-job-out-of-the-whirlwind-blakeBased on John Green’s novel of the same name, this film addresses inexplicable suffering in much the same way as the book of Job. All the characters are there: Job, Job’s family, Job’s friends. In the biblical story, for reasons which remain unclear, Job suffers relentless pain which impacts all realms of life — his family, his work, his religion. When God finally appears, he refuses to justify himself but rather impresses with poetry. The Fault in Our Stars follows a strangely similar formula. The protagonist, Hazel Grace Lancaster, who “reminds a lot of people of a lot of people,” has terminal thyroid cancer. She’s busy dying as best as she can until Augustus Waters, an eighteen-year-old in remission, appears onscreen. This is where things get interesting. This is where it becomes not just a story about inexplicable suffering, but a story about the inexplicable love that can appear despite everything.

In a sermon on Job, poet Archibald MacLeish once said:

“Acceptance…of God’s will is not enough. Love — love of life, love of the world, love of God, love in spite of everything — is the answer, the only possible answer, to our ancient human cry against injustice. It is for this reason that God, at the end of the poem, answers Job not in the language of justice but in the language of beauty and power…signifying that it is not because He is just but because He is God that He deserves His creature’s adoration.”

The film traces Hazel’s love — love for Augustus, but also for life and the world and maybe even God, in spite of everything. Shailene Woodley, who plays the Job-like Hazel, gives a brilliant performance on par with previous roles in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. Playing a character with “a touch of cancer,” she gives a fresh voice to primordial complaints. When Hazel explains that everything upsets her, from her illness to the sky to her childhood swing-set, she admits: “I also don’t want this particular life.” All too similarly Job confesses, “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.”

If I could stretch the Joban parallels further, Willem Dafoe would be playing Job’s friend Eliphaz. In the film, Dafoe’s character, Peter Van Houten, has written a novel about cancer called An Imperial Affliction which provides little insight about injustice, death, and what happens after death. Van Houten’s character baffles because he is both ludicrous and familiar. When Hazel consults him for answers, he sidesteps the problem of suffering and offers quick, “intellectual” answers in the form of indecipherable parables about turtles and Swedish hiphop, always circling around the idea that some infinities are bigger than others. In some way he plays God: the all-powerful creator, the parabolic teacher, the inaccessible thinker. But as God, he fails. He cannot justify death, cannot impress despite suffering. He does try, though, which is why he reminds me more so of Job’s friends who offer brilliant but ultimately unsatisfactory analyses of injustice. In a lot of ways, too, Van Houten looks like us. His assistant confesses that “circumstances have made him cruel.” He’s suffered in his own right like everyone else.

10344339_1490813381148579_8286627265084207213_oOn the origins of suffering, the title rejects Julius Caesar’s proposal that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Here, the fault is in our stars; the fault comes, as in Job, incomprehensibly from beyond. Job cries, “Surely now God has worn me out…I was at ease, and he broke me in two….My face is red with weeping” (16.7-16). I was humbled to remember that God himself, though we indict him in our pain, isn’t above suffering. He understands better than any of us the fault in our stars.

Despite the weep-worthy moments throughout, it would be incorrect to say this movie conveys only hopelessness and death with a little teen romance tossed in the mix. The story eschews talk of life after death, but there’s something about The Fault in Our Stars that evokes redemption beyond the opening-up of grief and pain. Maybe it’s the beauty in its brightly-colored set or the sharp humor in the face of death or the killer soundtrack playing in the background. Or maybe, as MacLeish suggests, it’s simply the love story — the old, old story that’s captivated humanity for thousands of years.