Five Feet Apart: Approach with caution

Morgan Holbrook

Justin Baldoni’s directorial debut is the fictional story of two teens with a nonfictional illness, cystic fibrosis, who struggle with putting each other’s health at risk by wanting to be together.

Even before its release, this film has polarized the cystic fibrosis community: some hopeful for the awareness it will bring to the rare disease; others criticizing its depiction and usage as a plot device, as well as some of the marketing tactics. Though wary of the genre of teen romantic drama, as a cystic fibrosis patient and double lung transplant recipient, I am in the former camp.

Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) is a disciplined yet bubbly CF patient and vlogger who is programming an app to organize her complex treatment regimen. She is determined to defy the shortened life expectancy that accompanies her CF and receive a lung transplant.

The charmingly snarky Will Newman (Cole Sprouse), would rather doodle Donkey Kong on his treatment notes than read them. He carries a highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Burkholderia Cepacia, which disqualifies him from being eligible for a lung transplant.

Stella’s need for control compels her to impose her own discipline upon Will’s life. Will, being amused by her compulsion and an avid cartoonist, allows Stella, on the condition that she lets him draw her. Tentatively, a deal is struck, and frequently checking in on each other to ensure they are honoring the deal slowly brings them closer, physically and emotionally.

Cystic fibrosis primarily affects the lungs, so CF patients being less than six feet apart puts them at high risk of exchanging airborne bacteria. Furthermore, if Stella catches B. Cepacia from Will, it would disqualify her eligibility for transplant. The film’s title comes from the leads’ rebellious decision to “steal” one foot back from their disease to be closer to each other.

The characters and darkly humorous dialogue, while predictable, remain nonetheless authentic, due in no small part to the ranged and nuanced performances given by the whole cast. Their abilities were well showcased by the director’s prevalent usage of medium and close-up shots.

The main issues of the film’s story and depiction of having CF can be metaphorically summarized in a single detail: the battery-powered oxygen concentrators the two leads wear throughout the film never seem to make any noise.

As a CF patient who relied on supplemental oxygen for over a year, the incessant hiss of the machine was an inescapable irritation. The presence of other details in the film shows the filmmakers were intimately familiar with what having CF is like, no doubt due to the close involvement of the late Claire Wineland during the writing process. She was an outspoken 21-year-old cystic fibrosis advocate who died before the film’s release, and is warmly tributed mid-credits.

Similar to the oxygen concentrators missing their “hiss,” many issues surrounding having CF were introduced but not explored in favor of spending more time with the leads’ romance. The app that Stella is programming is introduced and used, but the audience never learns whether or not she completes it, or her motivations for creating it in the first place.

Fans of the actors and the teen romantic drama genre will be more than satisfied with the film overall; the entire cast is deeply endearing, and the strain CF imposes on the leads’ relationship is moving. Though for the more cynical audience member, the film ultimately fell short of escaping the cliches of the genre it demonstrated astute awareness of.

It fails to be a perfect romance or perfect depiction of what having cystic fibrosis is like, with the novelization of the film providing a more complete picture. However, in making audience members who are not familiar with cystic fibrosis embrace the characters and sympathize with those who suffer from the disease, it confidently succeeds.

Rating: 3.5 sails out of 5 sails


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