I really wanted to love Five Feet Apart. In my head, I already did, from the cheerful trailer to the engaging promotional tour in which its very entertaining leads Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson spoke of raising awareness for cystic fibrosis, the chronic disease that plagues their characters in the film.
I didn’t love it. In fact, it reminded me why I can no longer stomach the young adult novel section of the bookstore. The shelves I used to frequent to find comfort and humor in the stories of my peers are now stocked with dismal stories of artificial pain - many of which treat illness as a plot device instead of a harsh reality.
Thanks to John Green’s wildly successful novel The Fault in Our Stars (2014), the love story between two teenagers who can’t be together because of the reality of disease has been reused and recycled in young adult novels and their inevitable film adaptations. There was the middling Midnight Sun (2018), in which the health of Bella Thorne’s body could not sustain sunlight because of a rare disorder, so she could never see Patrick Schwarzenegger outside during the day. Amandla Stenberg couldn’t leave the house in Everything, Everything (2017) because of a similar disorder that made it too dangerous to venture outdoors to see boy-next-door Nick Robinson. (Watch him in Love, Simon instead - a rare feat of the YA genre that nails the teenage struggle in a very real way.)
In Five Feet Apart, in theaters now, Sprouse and Richardson play two teenagers with cystic fibrosis. They can’t come within six feet of each other because of dangerous potential cross-contamination. What was billed as an inspirational feature in which Stella (Richardson) seizes the day, is actually a slow-paced long road with plenty of teenage tropes thrown in to dilute its legitimacy. FF2 Media contributor Pamela Powell calls the film “painfully contrived” and is correct in stating that “everything evokes a sense of artificiality.”
Sometimes it’s not as difficult as a literal distance between people. Sometimes people can’t leave their houses or experience life for different, more complicated reasons. That doesn’t mean chronically ill people don’t deserve representation - they absolutely do. Just maybe not repeatedly in the context of a plot device that always separates them from a cute love interest. (There are plenty of very good examples of how unexpected illness can alter your life. The swiftly-cancelled Fox drama Red Band Society and Seth Rogen’s 50/50 are just a few.)
There are teenagers in hospitals right now, with a difficult road ahead for their families. The hospitals don’t look like the brightly-lit, cozy rooms in Five Feet Apart. They’re sterile. They smell. There are patients down the hall who are there one day, gone the next, without a loud and dramatic “code blue!” announcement over the loudspeaker. Their parents sit beside them, sacrificing their daily lives and routines to put all their energy into caring for their kids. (The parents in Five Feet Apart barely make an appearance, and then only at the most dramatic points of the story.) These kids can’t go to school, take a vacation, have a “normal” experience. Five Feet Apart touches on this, and these are easily the best parts of a film that was brimming with potential, but succumbed to the same old stuff (despite Richardson and Sprouse’s best efforts).
You could say this dates back to Nicholas Sparks and A Walk to Remember, in which Mandy Moore reveals her leukemia diagnosis to Shane West in a late scene. But there was a certain standard that novel and film held itself to - the disease was not the focus. The acceptance of death was not a plot device - it was very real, and very painful, but those things don’t always mean tubes and machines. There are enough tubes and machines, believe me. Even Romeo and Juliet, the oldest example we have of star-crossed lovers in literature, were separated by their feuding families. I didn’t expect Five Feet Apart to be Shakespearean, but our young adults deserve better. They deserve to movies with authentic hope, not more of the same old pain.
© Georgiana E. Presecky (3/15/19) FF2 Media
Click here for FF2 Media’s review of Five Feet Apart.
Photos Courtesy of CBS Films and 20th Century Fox
Photos: Richardson and Sprouse are far superior to their material in Five Feet Apart. They deserve better, and so does their young audience. Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars, one of many teen dramas rooted in terminal illness.