Thursday, April 18, 2024

‘Five Feet Apart’ Looks at Longing and Chronic Illness

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If more romance movies were half as smart, sweet, observant, and inclusive as Justin Baldoni’s Five Feet Apart, the genre would be poised for a public image overhaul. Toss in charm, a sweet sense of humor, and a willingness to explore complex emotions, and you’d have one of the best romance movies of the year. Tragic that the ending almost drives all the hard work off the rails.

Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, who wrote the book of the same name, also wrote the script. For a story firmly rooted in the genre of “terminally ill tragic love story” the movie overall is somewhat impressive. A genre I might add started with a movie called, Love Story. Complaining about “on the nose” scenes seems a little disingenuous, considering.

Stella has cystic fibrosis (CF) which is a genetic disease that causes the lungs to fill with mucus. She could get a lung transplant but those only last up to five years. “People with CF grow up dying every day,” Stella tells the new cute boy Will (Cole Sprouse) on the wing.

Will also has CF. People with CF are recommended to be six feet apart at all times so as to not catch or infect others with bacteria. Unlike Stella, he seems almost lackadaisical. Stella has OCD and organizes her med cart and keeps a to-do list in her journal. Will is so irresponsible he can’t even be trusted to even keep his med cart in the room. In movies, and romance movies especially, opposites attract; of course, the two will end up together in the end.

Of course, this can only happen after the obligatory inverse of a meet-cute. The inverse meet-cute is the meet-hate. It’s like a meet-cute but they hate each other instead of like each other. Through a series of contrived instances, they will ultimately realize that they have more in common than previously thought. Followed by an insurmountable obstacle. They will either overcome the obstacle or some kind of inevitable tragic truth will occur and they will accept with grace and dignity.

A movie that adheres to all of this faithfully is not necessarily a bad movie. It merely means the filmmakers are students of the genre. The difference becomes what happens in between all of the cliche and necessary plot contrivances. Five Feet Apart has characters, performances, and a melancholy sweetness—all of which are much more thought out than the genre usually demands.

Baldoni lucked out with casting Haley Lu Richardson. Stella is not only the focal point of the movie but also the rising tide that lifts all other performances. Richardson, who is usually the stand out of any movie she is in, all but radiates off the screen. On paper, Stella is a bit of a modern-day cliche. A dying girl with a sizable social media presence where she educates the world on her condition, haunted by recent tragic events, and who greets all of this with a smile and optimistic attitude.

Richardson eschews this and makes Stella seem real. Baldoni and the script allow for Stella to have moments of selfish anger, self-doubt, and immaturity. In other words, she’s allowed to be a teenager. Richardson’s performance pulsates in a way not normally found in a movie of this stripe. Notice the way she handles the line, “I got your cartoon. You’re forgiven. Now go away.” A line that is obviously “written” but she delivers it as though Stella thought of it.

Will has B Cepia in addition to CF, a deadly and highly infectious bacteria. If they couldn’t touch before, Five Feet Apart goes the extra foot to ensure that if the two touch one or both will surely die. Except for the script by Daughtry and Iaconis is much more subtle than that. They acknowledge the severity of the issue but never sensationalize it.

Baldoni creates an atmosphere where characters long for each other but cannot touch. A sense of frustration and longing streams through the frames as Stella and Will ache to have any kind of contact, verbal or physical. He creates a subtle tension as teens are forced to connect without physical intimacy.

Will and Stella must be six feet apart when they go out. Stella brings along a five-foot pool cue, and the two hold the cue while they walk. Another film would have made this cringy or “cute.” Baldoni and his writers manage to make it sweet and touching. Such as when Will confesses he wishes he could touch her. Stella takes the cue and rubs it over her shoulder and down her arm.

Stella has a friend, Poe (Moises Arias), a fellow CF patient. Best friends, the two are connected by their history of CF. In many ways, Poe’s story of isolation is just as important as Stella’s and Will’s. Arias is able to rise up to Richardson’s level and two share wonderful chemistry as they banter back and forth, aching for so much as a friendly hug.

Sprouse’s Will is annoying, selfish, and an absolute teenager through and through. Predictably, we begin to see Will is really a sensitive soul. His off-putting manner is merely a tactic to keep people at a distance. He is afraid of his own mortality. Sprouse has a remarkable ability to sell this type of character with minimal effort, to the point I found my desire to strangle the brat wane after ten or twenty minutes.

Baldoni and the script shy away from explaining how these characters are paying for all of their treatments. The hospital has a pool, an atrium, and spacious and decorated private rooms. Anyone with a just a passing knowledge of the American healthcare system would be curious about the copay for all of this. But for as much as they don’t talk about the cost of it all they do talk about sex and death. They do so in a way that sounds like teenagers discussing sex and death.

While on a date, Will and Stella discuss what happens after you die. Stella utters a trite explanation for her belief and Will disagrees. Take into account that Stella is reading a book called “Immortality, Life, and Death” and she more than likely got the line from said book. It goes from trite to something a teenage girl read, absorbed, and repeated because she’s been mulling it over. In other words, they talk like people their age: intellectually curious but without all the verbiage that comes with age. There is an ignorance and lack of academic speak as they discuss something every teenager finds themselves contemplating.

Sex is treated as a matter of fact. Poe, it seems, has had many partners and if anything comes off as a bit of a commitment-phobe. Most young adult movies treat sex as a holy thing. Five Feet Apart looks at sex as a part of life and something these characters would desire.

Five Feet Apart is so sweet and charming it’s a shame it all but falls apart towards the end. Up until this point, the movie has been a very sweet and sensitive look at longing and adolescence. But then it remembers it has a gay character who has hinted at being happy. It then quickly devolves into a stupid and cruel melodrama.

Characters who have been previously smart and sensible suddenly become idiotic and irresponsible. A series of events happen so quickly and close together I threw my hands up in exasperation. We are left wondering if maybe the projector skipped and we’re seeing a different movie with the same actors playing different characters.

By the final scene, the movie had started to right itself. But by that point, I was all but pulled out of what had been before a perfectly capable and emotionally effective movie. The ending makes sense with the rest of the story and the final decisions make emotional sense. But getting there required such a confluence of plot contrivances we’re left with a bit of whiplash.

Five Feet Apart works so well for so long it’s a pity it slips off the rail as it does. Still, overall the movie is better than most of its peers. It may not be perfect but for what it is, it’s not half bad.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

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