Telling stories about cancer is a hazardous endeavor. So many books, movies and television episodes have exploited the subject for easy, mawkish sentimentality. It’s almost reached the point of dog whistle manipulation — “Look, this person has cancer. Now cry. Cry.” John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars was written as a conscious effort to avoid these pitfalls. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if he succeeded. But I have seen the new movie based on the book, and I know that it does not.
The Fault in Our Stars opens with the main character narrating to the audience how the events that follow are “The truth. Sorry.” That “sorry,” a semi-ironic wink, is there to immediately set the film apart from, say, a Hallmark movie. But while it tries to talk a tough, emotionally honest game, it doesn’t follow through on it. The truth is that the movie is just as nakedly, unashamedly manipulative as any other critically derided cancer movie. And no amount of philosophical pretension can cover that up. I choose Pink Ribbons, Inc. as a documentary alternative not because it is also a movie about cancer but because it really picks apart the way we treat cancer in our culture.