Why We're All Obsessed With Movies About Sick Teens

To target young audiences, authors are homing in on one particular type of experience. This is why it's working.

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When I Was a Dying Teen-Loving Teen

This is the movie that, for many, started it all.
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Let's start with some personal background: When I was 17, I pre-ordered a copy of The Fault in Our Stars. I read it in four days, carrying it around with me from class to class to sneak a page in whenever I got a moment. Wisely, I read the ending in the safety of my own childhood bedroom. I was bereft.

I had been a John Green fan throughout high school, latching onto his books after spiraling into various YouTube fandoms that would eventually lead me to discover him before his fame really blew up. So when the success of The Fault In Our Stars skyrocketed him to author superstardom, I felt a little disappointed, as one sometimes does when a special, not-too-well-known thing becomes beloved by everyone. Still, I couldn't have been surprised that the book would be so popular: after all, it was a story about two dying teens falling in love. And that meant that it satisfied all the emotions that teenagers feel.

This book sat atop my desk in all my classes for just a few short days.
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In 2014, The Fault in Our Stars became a movie. In 2015, another movie about a girl with cancer, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (originally a book by Jesse Andrews) became an indie hit. In 2016, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, a book about a teenage boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy got the Netflix treatment. This year, Amandla Stenberg stars in what might be the biggest teen romance of the year: Everything, Everything.

When illness takes control of a young person's life, various tragedies ensue—and Hollywood has grabbed onto that concept to produce some of the most addictively heartbreaking movies. So, why is it exactly that these movies have become a teen obsession?

What's New In 'Everything, Everything'?

Maddy can be read as sort of modern day Rapunzel, locked in her own home.
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Everything, Everything (in theaters today) is adapted from the novel of the same name published in 2015. Amandla Sternberg stars as Maddy, an 18-year-old girl who has never left her home, because she suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare disease that prevents her from going outside of her sterilized environment. When a new boy (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, she falls in love, and their forbidden relationship changes everything about how she experiences her world.

But even more than evoking sympathy in their teenage viewers, these films teach empathy—after all, every teenager knows what it feels like not to be allowed to do what they want.

Some films use teenage illness as a plot device that comes up suddenly and unexpectedly, preventing an already-blooming relationship from proceeding, but Everything, Everything differs in that illness is confronted from the beginning. Maddy has never left her house. The only people she interacts with are her mother, her nurse, and her nurse's daughter, who is conveniently her age. When illness arises in many teen movies, it is a restrictive force, changing the lives of already healthy individuals, coming unexpectedly, and otherwise putting new pressure on existing relationships. In Everything, Everything, however, Maddy's illness and lifestyle are such that she shouldn't even be presented with an opportunity to fall in love in the first place—after all, she doesn't have the ability to meet anyone new. She does anyway.

Get ready for some serious twists.

Movies that feature illness bring audiences diverse stories, especially when they actually explain the particular intricacies of specific conditions (which both Everything, Everything and The Fault in Our Stars do thoughtfully). People who have not suffered from chronic illnesses themselves can walk away from these films with a greater understanding of what some people experience. But even more than evoking sympathy in their teenage viewers, these films teach empathy—after all, every teenager knows what it feels like not to be allowed to do what they want.

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So, Why Are We Obsessed With Sick Teens?

Coming-of-age movies can vary in terms of relatability. Shy teenagers might not see themselves in movies that centralize on rowdy party scenes, and the more popular crowd might not quite empathize with underdog stories. But illness is a democratizing force. Anyone can fall ill—and that's why anyone can sympathize with a sick teen.

The romances that blossom in the midst of illness are wholly star-crossed—and any teenager who has had an unrequited crush, not been allowed to date someone, or had to move away from the object of their affection knows what it's like to really really like someone and not be able to do anything about it. "Through the ages, I think all people have found stories of star-crossed love compelling," says Everything, Everything author Nicola Yoon. "Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Gatsby and Daisy from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby come to mind—these stories explore the importance of love in our lives. They ask big questions like: What kind of risks are we willing to take to find and hold on to love? Is it possible to survive love's loss?"

The ultimate teenage fantasy: escape parents, go to Hawaii.

Everything, Everything takes the notion of forbidden love to an extreme, and although the story is one that hardly seems relatable at face value, its themes of resistance and star-crossed love hit the core of what teenage feelings are all about. These are big emotions kept in glass houses, and they are fated to burst eventually. Sometimes there are casualties. Sometimes there aren't. But always, there are a lot of wet eyes in the audience.

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Here are three more films to satiate that need for illness-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder love stories.

The Dying-Teen Flick for a New Millennium

The 2002 film A Walk to Remember, adapted from the 1999 novel by Nicholas Sparks, gave us Mandy Moore at her most saccharine. Still, it's hard to deny that the bittersweet love between Moore's preacher's daughter and Shane West's rebellious Landon was eminently watchable. Sure, most parents would not allow a young teen couple to get married because one of them has terminal leukemia, but this is a Sparks romance—the professing of undying love by and to dying people is the ultimate test of faith and selflessness.

The Ultimate Love-Is-Blind Biopic

Very loosely based on the life of Roy Lee Dennis, Mask (1985) follows Rocky, a teen afflicted with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, a rare disorder that leads to disfigurement of the skull and early death. Rocky is beloved by his classmates and excels in school. While working as a counselor at a camp for blind children, he meets Diana, who cannot see Rocky's face but is charmed by the way he describes the world around her. Diana's parents disapprove of the match, prevent her from seeing Rocky at the end of the summer, and then—well, more sad stuff happens.

The Movie That Proves Doomed Love Is Timelessly Beautiful

Not a spoiler if you paid attention in class: John Keats was a brilliant Romantic poet who died from tuberculosis when he was only 25 years old. Bright Star (2009) follows Keats in the last few years of his life, as he struggles to achieve critical acclaim. He meets and is pursued by the stylish Fanny Brawne (yes, she pursues him), but rival romantic interests and forced separations make for a rocky start. Keats eventually proposes to Fanny secretly, and then publishes the book that makes him famous (Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems).

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