Disguised as a chick flick, The Fault in Our Stars woos floods of teenage girls while simultaneously offering a startlingly honest commentary on life and death. Sure, it’s a used plot (cancer-stricken teens fall in love) and an even more used conflict (inexplicable suffering), but The Fault in Our Stars strikes up a whirlwind of important questions, which, chances are, will challenge viewers beyond their expectations. These are important questions. Questions of Joban proportions.

18b-lord-answering-job-out-of-the-whirlwind-blake18b-lord-answering-job-out-of-the-whirlwind-blakeBecause let’s face it, all the characters are there: Job, Job’s family, Job’s friends. The Fault in Our Stars, based on John Green’s bestselling novel, addresses inexplicable suffering in much the same way as the book of Job. For reasons which remain unclear, Job suffers relentless pain which impacts all realms of life—his family, his work, his religion. When God finally shows up, flinging words out of a whirlwind, he refuses to justify himself to Job but rather impresses him with beautiful 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,” suffers from terminal thyroid cancer. She’s busy dying as best as she can until Augustus Waters, a hunky eighteen-year-old in remission, appears on screen. And 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 grows out of suffering.

In a sermon on Job, Pulitzer Prize winner Archibald MacLeish says:

“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.”

So love, then. That, according to MacLeish, is the answer. The film traces Hazel’s development of love—love for Augustus, sure, but also for life and the world and maybe even God, in spite of everything.

Shailene Woodley, who plays Job, I mean Hazel, gives another brilliant performance on par with her previous roles in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. Playing a character with “a touch of cancer,” she gives a fresh voice to Job’s primordial complaints. When Hazel finally admits that she is not in fact okay but that everything, from her illness to the sky to her crappy swing set, upsets her, she explains: “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.” Words like these bewitch us because they aren’t new; they’re old and universal and something that humans feel unfailingly while suffering. Brokenness remains as ancient as the book of Job and as fresh as a Friday night movie-and-popcorn.

If I could stretch the Joban parallels further, Willem Dafoe would play Eliphaz. In the film Dafoe’s character, Peter Van Houten, writes a cancer novel called An Imperial Affliction which provides no explanation for injustice, death, or what happens after death. Van Houten’s character baffles me because he comes across as both ludicrous and familiar. When Hazel, who is convinced he knows what happens after his novel ends, seeks answers from him, he attempts to sidestep the problem of suffering by offering quick, “intellectual” answers in the form of indecipherable parables about turtles and Swedish hip hop, always circling around the idea that some infinities are bigger than other infinities. Whatever that means. In a lot of ways he plays God: the all-powerful creator, the parabolic teacher, the inaccessible thinker. As God, he fails. He cannot explain death; he cannot explain suffering. He does try, though, and therefore reminds me of Job’s friends, Eliphaz for example, who offers a brilliant but ultimately unsatisfactory analysis of injustice. In a lot of ways, too, he looks like us. His assistant confesses that “circumstances have made him cruel.” He’s a shabby clay jar, broken like the rest of us.

10344339_1490813381148579_8286627265084207213_oAnd so, you can’t help but wonder: What’s the origin of suffering? Why do kids have cancer? Whose fault is it? 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 heaven. Job cries out, “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). The Fault in Our Stars marks a valiant attempt by Hollywood to depict suffering honestly, as an unavoidable facet of real life, and 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 inescapable weep-worthy moments throughout, it would be tough to convince anyone that the movie conveys only hopelessness, death, and suffering with a little teen romance tossed in the mix. True enough, the story eschews explicit references to resurrection, but there’s something about The Fault in Our Stars that evokes God beyond the grief and pain. Maybe it’s the beauty in the brightly-colored set or the sharp humor in the face of death or the killer soundtrack pulsing in the background. Or maybe, as MacLeish suggests, it’s the love story, the old, old love story, that’s captivated humanity for thousands of years.