Movies based on books are nothing new. Neither are teen romances. Or stories about the fragility of life. Even after rolling all three categories into one, at least a dozen recent titles still spring to mind. So, going into Five Feet Apart (2019), the latest addition to this ever-growing subgenre, it’s easy to wonder what else it could possibly offer. Unfortunately, aside from a quirky hook about its leads being unable to get close enough to touch each other, the answer is, quite frankly, not that much. Sure, there’s sparks of humour here and there. And a decidedly heart-wrenching finale. But it is incredibly frustrating to see the film’s key takeaway, of humanising a genetic condition that affects more than 70,000 people worldwide, come through in little more than sparse moments interspersed between a clunky start and a rushed, soap-opera style third act.
In saying that, those looking for a stock standard teenage romance, full of pretty protagonists and just enough hints at a terrible tragedy ready to befall them, will find Five Feet Apart (2019) a figurative goldmine. The story follows young cystic fibrosis sufferer Stella Grant as she navigates both her disease and a newfound friendship with fellow CF patient Will Newman. Because of their sickness, the pair must always stay six feet apart, lest they inadvertently share their bacteria and infect one another. But despite the fact that Will is infected with B. cepacia, a drug-resistant strain that, should it be transferred to Stella, could risk her chance at any potential lung transplants, the pair soon fall for each other. Because what sort of movie would it be if everyone played by the rules, right? So, the pair bond over medicine-taking techniques, gym sessions and late-night swims, with Stella eventually deciding the only way for her to take back some control and any chance at connection, is to steal back as many inches between them as she can. But when every moment is borrowed time, it’s not long before the couple are made to question whether a relationship built to fail can survive in the long run.
As far as the acting goes, Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse do their best to bring warmth and authenticity to their characters. And for the most part they seem to cultivate a genuine connection. But despite such efforts, it is hard to read Stella and Will as anything other than stuck, running down the clock on an ending most audience members can see a mile off. It’s not all doom and gloom though, with some of the film’s more touching moments coming across in the depiction of regular CF life – such Stella’s blogging and room decorating – which not only raise awareness of the titular disease but also emphasize the loneliness it begets. Rarely do deliveries of such medical issues remain thoughtful rather than sanctimonious. Similarly, an understated performance from former Hannah Montana (2006) star Moises Arias as Stella’s best-bud Poe helps ground things, especially as the music montages kick in.
A glossy young adult production, realism is the true detractor for Five Feet Apart (2019). For example, while we are given the opportunity to meet Will and Stella’s parents (albeit briefly and not by name), there’s never any significant inclination into how they, or for that matter the doctors and nurses too, cope with the children’s sicknesses. Where are all the visitors coming to see them? The forms needing to be filled in? Or the hospital-run programs providing them with something productive to do during their stay, like homework? No, instead, the teens are apparently given free reign through-out the hospital, jetting about on skateboards, hosting frivolous dinners in the back rooms of the cafeteria, and literally walking around on the roof’s edge. Then again, it’s hard to expect anything better from scriptwriters who somehow think regular teen talk includes profound and poetic dialogue, along with plenty of ‘staring into the distance’ moments.
Now, there’s been a lot of talk about the film’s use of Cystic Fibrosis as little more than a plot point. And while I can’t say it’s not true, it’s hard to argue that this is something new for Hollywood. How many times have we seen cancer trotted out in the same vein to bring two stricken teens together a la The Fault In Our Stars (2014), Now Is Good (2012) and My Sister’s Keeper (2009). But unlike the pictures that have come before it, there is a danger that lurks below the surface of Five Feet Apart (2019). Because any patient with CF knows that pushing the boundaries and ‘stealing back just a few inches’ can be deadly. So yes, we must agree that, at best, it’s romanticising of this idea seems inherently wrong, and at worst, it might even present perilous consequences. But then again, treating movies like documentaries doesn’t do anyone any good. Otherwise you could claim there’s risk in showing anything on screen.
Above all else, Five Feet Apart (2019) is a portrait in intimacy between two people who can’t touch. And as intriguing as that concept sounds, it’s also infuriating. Because as much as you want to sit there and say that there is nothing romantic in stealing someone’s future away from them, the fact still remains that you can’t choose who you love. Is this a new concept? Not really. But an exciting one to explore? Sure. The true deciding vote though lies in whether such a picture is worthy enough to dedicate two hours of your life too. And for us, as formulaic and annoying as it is, it is still somewhat of a breathe of fresh air.
Rating: 3 Lungs out of 5
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