Gus Waters is perfect.
Too perfect. In fact, The Fault in Our Stars’ romantic interest has such a tight grasp of the unpredictable world resting beneath his feet, he may be an Edge of Tomorrow–like time-traveler, living out the 57th run of his same lifetime. A creation of author John Green inhabited by actor Ansel Elgort, Gus falls fast and hard for cancer-stricken Hazel (Shailene Woodley). It doesn’t take long for her to reciprocate. He’s a bad boy, he’s a sweetheart, he’s a dumb jock, he’s a nerd, he’s a philosopher, he’s a poet, he’s a victim, he’s a survivor, he’s everything everyone wants in their lives, and he’s a fallacious notion of what we can actually have in our lives.
Gus Waters is awful.
Nathan Rabin famously dubbed Kirsten Dunst’s similarly flawless Elizabethtown character a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” an archetype existing “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Swap the genders and you have Gus, who is all-knowing, confident, and seemingly impervious to the throes of existence. It’s possible Green’s original portrayal rounds out the character and grants Gus’s tin exterior with an actual heart instead of a pickup-artist handbook. I want to be clear that everything I’ve gleaned about him here comes from the Fault in Our Stars movie, not its source material. But as characterized by Elgort, director Josh Boone, and 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, Gus is everything Hazel promises he won’t be. In the opening narration, she swears her story isn’t one of those manufactured romances where everything can be “fixed by a Peter Gabriel song.” Sorry, but Gus is the physical embodiment of Lloyd Dobler holding up his stereo and blasting “In Your Eyes.”
Like Dobler, he won’t take no for an answer. Crossing Manic Pixie Dream Girl DNA with a teenage boy results in a fiercer predator than anything in Jurassic Park. Gus doesn’t wait for Hazel to stumble upon him; he latches on after a group therapy meet-cute reveals her as a fatalist. He won’t accept her views on the “inevitability of human oblivion” because there’s a reason to live: him! He’s smooth, he’s compassionate, and he’s deep, man. He even knows about metaphors — as he will tell you, every time he sticks an unlit cigarette between his mouth.
“Why are you staring at me?” Hazel says, in the first few seconds of meeting.
“Because you’re beautiful,” replies Gus.
Demeanor is key here. There’s flirting — which is acceptable and necessary in the YA canon — and then there are moves, the kind of calculated lines that make you fear for the recipient. Pretentious one-liners, seemingly culled from the worst of Facebook statuses, are his way of hitting an emotional chord without actually listening. In one of their first meetings, Gus asks Hazel about her life. She gets a few words out, talking about her diagnostic history, before Gus interrupts: “Not your cancer story. Your real story.”
He keeps pushing her. Despite her insistence for informality, Gus often refers to her by her first and middle names, Hazel Grace, like a parent ordering a time-out. Absolute confidence and charisma turn Gus into Ferris Bueller by way of The Master. Even when they’re trading cancer stories — Gus lost a leg to osteosarcoma and wears a prosthetic below his knee — Gus refuses to share too much of himself. He’s just obsessed with her feelings, a sponge in need of water.
Overly devoted boyfriends — Edward in Twilight, the Hunger Games boys, Ethan in Beautiful Creatures, Divergent’s Four — run rampant in modern YA adaptations. They’re usually bossy; they’re always impossibly handsome. But even in silly dystopias, these fantasy characters have fantasy agendas of their own. The problems may border on ridiculous — protect the vampire family! Save society from an oppressive government! Help ward off an evil witch sister! — but the dreamy-eyed hunks still acknowledge them. They’re genetically engineered, but fallible. They make promises instead of handing their significant others answers. They have their own stuff to deal with.
At no point does Gus demonstrate that he exists outside the bubble he’s created for Hazel and himself. His parents act like Stepford substitutes and his basement room looks like Ikea’s bachelor pad, complete with a cool-guy V for Vendetta poster and a dozen basketball trophies. He reads books based on his favorite video game, but would happily try high literature if it allows him to quote it at the right moment. Gus is also a virgin — an admission that leaves Hazel dumbfounded, then swooning. Has this guy’s entire life been building to crossing paths with this young woman?
There’s a sense that Hazel doesn’t totally buy the Manic Cancer Metaphor Boy act, that maybe she’ll shake her pursuer and exist somewhere between fantasy and harsh reality. Nope. She resists him for much of the movie, and when they finally lock lips — after Hazel struggles to climb the stairs at Anne Frank’s house — there’s a weird sense of guilt lingering in the air. She’s smitten with Gus, sure, but this love connection isn’t what the Hazel at the beginning of the movie yearned for. Gus dragged her here. There are moments where Hazel snaps out of hypnosis to resist how easy it all feels, when The Fault in Our Stars might own its declaration of being true to life, but Gus won’t allow for wiggle room. “Your trying to keep your distance from me in no way lessens my affection for you,” he firmly states as she wrestles with her own mortality. No means no, buddy!
But it doesn’t for Gus, who continues this sunny stalker parade all the way through the actual act of dying. When cancer creeps up on Gus a second time, crippling everyday life, it barely rattles his persona. The two take their friend Isaac, recently blinded by cancer-related problems, out to egg his ex-girlfriend’s house in a morally questionable, Garden State–esque act of defiance. A flash-in-the-pan breakdown is just as quickly swept under the rug. Hazel digests these incidents. Gus smiles and asks her to write him a eulogy so he doesn’t have to spend the entire movie self-aggrandizing. Cancer may have taken Gus’s leg, but it’s never dented his person.
Watching any person battle cancer, even the biggest douchebag, is gut-wrenching. Gus tests the theory. He’s everything we fear about the younger generations — entitled, cocksure, righteous — nestled within a predicament where he can’t be touched: the terminal-illness narrative. The Fault in Our Stars is the love story of a complicated, existentially aware young woman and a chance connection with her one true love. Frankly, she deserves better.