We’ve had The Fault In Our Stars (which is about cancer), we’ve had Everything, Everything (severe combined immunodeficiency), and we’ve had If I Stay (coma). Yep, the young-adult-terminally-ill-romance is a popular thing right now. The freshest in this lineup is Justin Baldoni’s Five Feet Apart (this time the illness is cystic fibrosis).
My gut told me not to see it: this genre always does a disservice to the illness in the spotlight. It confuses romance with a terminal illness – using it as a mere means to enhance the passion and desire. It casts hot actors and actresses who only show minor symptoms of the disease, like pale skin and a tube here or there, because, you know, we don’t want to gross anyone out. It almost makes the viewer glorify the lifestyle: it’s thrilling, the hospitals are glamorous like a hotel, and it’s filled with drama, romance and friendship. But, I mean, Rafael from Jane the Virgin as the director? I had to give it a chance.
But no, from the get-go it was riddled with cliches. The longing stares out of windows, the sexy boy who would look as healthy as ever if that mere tube was missing (I mean, Cole Sprouse, seriously?), and the typical gay best friend that vicariously lives through his heterosexual friend’s love life rather than his own.
To make matters worse, Five Feet Apart encourages dangerous protocol – Stella’s (Haley Lu Richardson’s) idea of stealing “one foot back” from the CF rule of staying six feet apart from other CF patients is deadly in the real world. But because this movie is more about entertainment and romance, it negates the real struggles CF sufferers go through. You can’t touch each other’s medications in the real world, you can’t be around each other with no mask on, you can’t be five feet apart.
Social isolation is arguably one of the hardest parts about living with CF, so why does every day for Stella and Will feel like a cute date, a rooftop hangout, a party?
Movies about terminal illness are important to raise awareness and educate the public, but a more real approach would be better. There’s no room for creative license when a disease is about life and death. There’s nothing moral about capitalising on a deadly illness.
I will say, the directing and acting is performed very well – I shed more than a tear or two. The love story relays emotion excellently, and has the viewer rooting for Stella and Will from the get-go. It’s amazing that so much could be portrayed within pretty much one setting and by a handful of characters. It’s a great piece of entertainment (the romance part). But don’t exploit an illness that ruins lives in order to make a teen-romance film have more oomph. Or at least don’t pass it off as a token to the cystic fibrosis community.