Everyone involved with making“Five Feet Apart” (2019) had to know from the start that this movie would be endlessly compared to “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014), the megahit teen romantic drama with the tragic twist that the female lead has terminal cancer. “Fault” got there first and did it best, so well in fact that it spawned a whole sub-genre of “dying girl” teen romantic dramas and tragi-comedies. However, despite the inevitable comparisons to the quintessential film that started it all, “Five Feet Apart” managed to stand on its own merits. And, as the title suggests, this recent film enjoys particular relevance for all of us during the global pandemic.
First-time director Justin Baldoni (of Jane the Virgin fame) says he was inspired to make this film both by his enduring enthusiasm for the Romeo & Juliet story and by his life-altering meeting with a young woman with cystic fibrosis. Baldoni was struck by the sad truth that patients with CF have to maintain a social distance of six feet from each other to avoid infecting each other with potentially fatal bacteria. So, while a pair of young lovers who have CF might bond over that shared experience, the condition means they can never come into actual physical contact with each other. Baldoni was so moved by the young woman’s story that he decided to film it as “Five Feet Apart.”
This movie has not only increased public awareness about cystic fibrosis, but young people with CF have welcomed the film’s portrayal of characters they can relate to so closely. As we’ve discussed with the earlier films in this series, representation matters. Watching a movie with characters that look like you, live where you live, or have the same chronic illness, really can make you feel seen for the first time in ways you’ve never experienced before. It’s important. No one wants to feel like they’re invisible.
Another rather startling aspect to this film is that it wouldn’t have made sense even a few decades ago. Until recently, the life expectancy of people born with CF was just ten-years-old, so there weren’t any teen romances between CF patients.
When the hyper-vigilant CF patient Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) checks into the hospital for help fighting an infection while waiting for a lung transplant, she’s delighted to see the familiar faces of her stern but compassionate nurse Barb and her best friend Poe, a long-time resident of the ward. What she doesn’t expect is to fall for the cynical, bad-boy CF patient Will (Cole Sprouse), for whom she feels compelled to organize a regimen that will help him survive his condition. They’ve taken different approaches to their illness. Stella remains determined to stay alive until new and better treatments can be developed; Will has accepted the grim reality that his life will likely be as short as it is painful and constrained.
But, in classic romantic drama style, they realize that they each can learn something from the other, and they can both discover something entirely new – what it feels like to fall in love.
I hope you enjoy the movie. Don’t forget to keep some tissues handy. It’s a bit of a tearjerker.