Five Feet Apart: Teen love tropes and a cruel twist of phage

Movie review: Five Feet Apart

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse play cystic fibrosis patients forced to stay at a safe distance, yet ultimately sacrifice everything to satisfy their breathless love. It’s a run-of-the-mill millennial teen romance, but proves the next generation isn’t living in denial when it comes to death.

Five Feet Apart

3/5

Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberley Hebert Gregory, Parminder Nagra, Claire Forlani

Directed by: Justin Baldoni

Running time: 1 hr 56 mins

Rating: PG-13

By Katherine Monk

If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, it’s because you’ve seen a lot of movies that tell the exact same story, and play the very same strains of pathos-laden violin. For my generation, it was a 1976 movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble — a made-for-TV special event starring John Travolta as a teenager with an innate immune deficiency.

The handsome kid wanted to be like his peers and move through romantic rites of passage, but he couldn’t — due to the fact he was in a sealed, negative-pressure environment to control his exposure to bacteria and viral agents. The bubble was his life-saver, but also his prison, forcing him to chose between a safe, sterile existence or a risky, yet more rewarding life among omnipresent pathogens.

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble was a Romeo and Juliet story for a new age of star-crossed lovers, and it seems to have left a generational mark because the Gen-X’ers who watched that ABC special in 1976 are revisiting the same types of material, whether it’s Allan Loeb’s script for The Space Between Us (which featured a kid born on Mars who can’t really live on Earth), or Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry’s new take on the Capulets and the Montagues, Five Feet Apart.

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble was a Romeo and Juliet story for a new age of star-crossed lovers, and it seems to have left a generational mark because the Gen-X’ers who watched that ABC special in 1976 are revisiting the same types of material…

Starring Haley Lu Richardson (Edge of Seventeen, Split) as high school student Stella Grant, this Young Adult genre effort from CBS Films is set in a modern-day hospital. Stella has cystic fibrosis, the congenital disease that gradually decreases lung function. Without a transplant, Stella’s prognosis is poor, but she’s a fighter. She does everything right. She takes her meds. She does the therapies. She keeps an open and optimistic attitude to keep her family on the sunny side. She feels she must — lest they sink into a depression, and weep over their doomed daughter.

This part of the story is emotionally complex and compelling, but it’s not where the screenwriters or director Justin Baldoni are inclined to go. They decide to turn Five Feet Apart into a sweeping teen romance by introducing Stella to a tall, handsome and equally sick CF patient named Will Newman (Cole Sprouse, aka Jughead from Riverdale).

Will is new to the CF ward where Stella and her best friend Poe (Moises Arias) essentially grew up, being scanned, probed, suctioned and pummelled in the name of good health. Stella considers herself unofficial den mother and central cheerleader — thanks to her Youtube videos about all the treatments — but Will doesn’t share her sunny demeanour. He’s dark, sarcastic and without hope.

He feels he’s being realistic. He was bumped off the transplant list as a result of a bacterial infection. His only hope is a new drug trial, which is why he’s on Stella and Poe’s ward. Imagine Twilight set among IVs and heart monitors, med carts and Johnny gowns, because honestly, that’s essentially what Five Feet Apart comes down to.

Stella falls for the moody and distant Will, and Will returns her feelings, but the pair can never kiss — or even hold hands — because of Will’s bacterial load. To prevent transmission, the couple must always stay six feet apart and wear protective clothing. Failure to do so could result in both of them dying even sooner, a fact not lost on their ward nurse Barb (Kimberley Hebert Gregory), a tough lady who loves her patients and won’t stand for neglectful practices, even in the name of true love.

Sprouse has perfected the slightly goofy grin that girls can’t get enough of, and Richardson has the lightly freckled all-American glow and big blue eyes that are mandatory for H&M billboards and Tommy Hilfiger magazine ads.

The love story is nicely played out by the two leads, who create a sudsy lather through their mutual friction. Sprouse has perfected the slightly goofy grin that girls can’t get enough of, and Richardson has the lightly freckled all-American glow and big blue eyes that are mandatory for H&M billboards and Tommy Hilfiger magazine ads. They are a beautiful pair, but as gooey as the romance is, it’s not what kept me in the movie’s spell.

The contrast between human love and the hospital environment is what seduced me most of all. For those people who know what it’s like to be in a hospital — as a patient or a visitor — for long periods of time, Five Feet Apart does a tender job of articulating the unique experience of long term ward life.

For instance, there’s a whole running gag about keeping your med cart tidy. Half the cast is wearing oxygen tubes, and we begin to see the hospital itself as a microcosm of the outside world. We feel the emotional difference between being on the ward, and just walking down to the comfort of the atrium — where the sick and the healthy can mingle as human beings instead of medical conditions.

The contrast between human love and the hospital environment is what seduced me most of all. For those people who know what it’s like to be in a hospital — as a patient or a visitor — for long periods of time, Five Feet Apart does a tender job of articulating the unique experience of long term ward life.

This is the part of the film that director Baldoni handles without effort, and it allows the two leads to create their own little world within it — the way teenagers generally do. By keeping the grown-ups at arms’s length, maintaining an all-or-nothing tone, and cranking up the tension with some gratuitously stupid action, the film finds the teen sweet spot and fully captures the breathless quality of young, unbridled passion.

I could hear young people around me sniffle and sob throughout. Every so often, you could hear an “aw…” or an “ooh…” squeak out unconsciously. Perhaps most notably, they were able to process a potentially tragic outcome — whereas in my day, the very thought of a sick kid who does not get better felt like an incomprehensible anomaly. Young people were always supposed to live, thanks to some miracle cure, a fast-responding collie or the selfless courage of a grown-up.

That said, Five Feet Apart would suggest Millennials are the first generation in modern history to accept their own mortality before adulthood. Whether it’s the result of watching the planet’s climate transform, the all-too frequent mass shootings that claim their peers in classrooms, or the apparent incompetence and disinterest of those in power to change anything, the next generation is staring death in the face at close proximity, or a mere Five Feet Apart.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, March 15, 2019

-30-

Review: Five Feet Apart

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Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse play cystic fibrosis patients forced to stay at a safe distance, yet ultimately sacrifice everything to satisfy their breathless love. It’s a run-of-the-mill millennial teen romance, but proves the next generation isn’t living in denial when it comes to death. -- Katherine Monk

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