Five Feet Apart

FIVE FEET APART,  US, 2019. Starring Hayley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Parminda Nagra, Claire Forlani, Emily Baldoni, Gary Weeks. Directed by Justin Baldoni.  116 minutes. Rated M (Coarse langauge)

This review is based not on a preview screening for critics but on a Sunday afternoon suburban screening, thirty or so in the cinema, most the same age as the central characters up there on the screen, late teens, young adults.

This is definitely a young adults story. It must have worked well with our audience, so many of them sobbing, one girl close by, audibly sobbing. (And, when the lights came up during the final credits, quite a number of sniffles suddenly being supplanted by self-conscious giggles about the sobbing.)

Most of the action takes place inside a hospital. The two central characters have cystic fibrosis. They are in a strict regimen of medication, of wearing masks, of keeping six feet away from each other to avoid infection from cystic fibrosis. The staff is sympathetic but also strict.

We are first introduced to Stella (Hayley Lu Richardson), late teens, ill for some years, devoted parents, entering hospital while her friends go on vacation, orderly in her life, referring often to herself sometimes as OCD. She certainly can be bossy. In passing, she encounters Will (Cole Sprouse), disapproving of some of his behaviour, considering him irresponsible in his not keeping to his regimen, his joking. In hospital is Po (Moises Arias) Stella’s friend from childhood days. Eventually, they will form something of a Three Musketeers group.

One of the values of this kind of film (and other films like The Fault in our Stars) is that it offers a younger audience who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about illness let alone the prospect of early death, an opportunity to see characters, empathise with them, learn from them about the challenge of terminal illness.

Which means then that these films about illness are versions of romantic comedies, this time romance at a distance, 5 feet apart, some funny situations, and, as the parody of romantic comedies in Isn’t it Romantic mention, nowadays the presence of the gay friend (Po here) and some equivalent of a dancing sequence. This time, in fact, with Stella and Will escaping from the hospital, dancing and skating on ice – and the sudden shock of it being thinner ice than they anticipated.

Stella demands a deal with Will, that he be stricter and responsible and that she will allow him to draw her. This enables them to be more honest with themselves, be more honest with each other – including a moving sequence at a pool where they reveal their disfigured bodies to each other.

There is quite some melodrama towards the end of the film, an event certainly not anticipated and causing quite a crisis when suddenly the lungs of a dead girl become available for transplant.

The film does not avoid realities of death but presents them in a humane way that a healthy teenage audience can deal with – and, after the sobs, reflect on more realistically. Not a bad thing.

Roadshow                                        Released  April 5th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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