The title of our final teen movie “Five Feet Apart” (2019) in this series works especially well because until you actually see the film, you might think it’s an error. Maybe they should have called it “six feet apart” instead to more accurately reflect the appropriate amount of social distance. During this pandemic we have all learned very well how far apart we need to stay in order to stay safe from infection.
But no! “Five Feet Apart” gets its title from a deliberate and defiant reclaiming of that last foot of distance by our delightful and normally very cautious protagonist Stella Grant, wonderfully acted by Haley Lu Richardson. The mystery of the sixth foot missing from its title is just a small part of the cleverness and the triumphant spirit that make this film special.
The difference that single foot makes is key to this story of star-crossed lovers who can never be together, but who use their love as a tool to overcome the dominance of cystic fibrosis over their young lives. Along the way, they also find that love offers a powerful way to learn more about yourself – through the eyes of another. Stella tries to manage and control everything. Will has surrendered to a fatalistic, nothing-matters attitude. But in adopting these coping mechanisms, they both had walled themselves off from the world (and themselves) in some ways. The love, compassion, and companionship they find in each other helps them to tear down those walls and experience life in a fuller and healthier way.
While the familiar tropes of both the “dying girl” and the “doomed love” sub-genres can seem a bit saccharine sometimes, “Five Feet Apart” brings genuine heart to the formulas it uses. As such, this film emerges as an honest and loving tribute to young people living with cystic fibrosis. And it provides long-overdue cinematic representation for people who have remained largely invisible in television and movies.
While those of us who don’t personally struggle with this awful disease can never know the full extent of the grief and pain felt by those who live with CF, the forced social distancing of this pandemic has in a small way given us all a better sense of the high stakes that CF patients struggle against every day of their lives. This movie not only makes us shed tears, but it provokes in us a genuine empathy for those who might never feel the joys and the comforts of their lover’s embrace. Diseases like CF present personal challenges and can sometime mandate social distancing from the ones we love, but they never take away our humanity.
In some ways, with all these teen movies, we have explored our ongoing need to overcome barriers that prevent us from connecting to our world and our loved ones. These movies share a longing, and a powerful hope, for a better world.