“Ugh! Another sappy teen romance, and it didn’t even have a happy ending!” said the 16-year-old girl behind me, at the conclusion of “Five Feet Apart.”
We Americans love to hate what I call Dying Girl Movies. But actually? We really love them; that’s why there are a million of these things. We’re kind of a sappy, romantic nation, with a puritanical underpinning. In reality, we love sad things, sad songs, especially sad country songs. (Is there any other kind?) And we love sad teen romance movies. We just can’t admit it to ourselves. So this nonsense needs to be called out.
We don’t admit it, do we? We like to go into denial; we like to pretend, instead, that someone else is doing this to us. We are victims of sad teen romances. They are foisted upon us. We have no say in the matter. We think, “It jerked my tears!! How dare it do that? I myself had nothing to do with the situation.”
I’d like to put one of those big eyes-rolled-upward emoticons right here.
The ancient Greeks figured out long ago how to keep the theatergoing public from jumping up like that girl and complaining after seeing the tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides. The playwrights would write a short comedy to follow the tragedies: a comedy chaser to balance out the emotions.
Because not just Americans, but humans in general love to revel in tragedy, and cry tears, and wring their hands. Aristotle named this “catharsis.” But you can’t send them home all catharted like that. You’ve got to balance the crying with laughing, which is why the universal symbol for theater is the happy/sad masks.
So from henceforth, every Dying Girl Movie (like the “Avengers” movies’ post-credit-roll teasers) should have a post-credit, hilarious cartoon. And then the post-cinematic experience will be, “Oh, it was so great, first I bawled, and then I hooted, and now I feel so peaceful.”
What Goes On?
“Five Feet Apart” tells the tragic tale of two teens, Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse, Jughead on TV’s “Riverdale”) who both have cystic fibrosis. They meet in classic, teens-who-at-first-snark-at-each-other fashion, in a hospital ward.
He’s a wan, sarcastic bad boy who draws cartoons, and she’s an effervescent angelic type with a YouTube channel, who obsesses compulsively about how her pill containers are lined up on her hospital tray. And then also starts obsessing about the fact that he’s not only sloppy with his pill-tray aesthetics, but also with his pill-taking schedule. She must make a schedule for him. To feel at peace with herself.
Will and Stella must also always stay six feet apart at all times, to keep from infecting each other.
There are other friends/patients with the same disease in neighboring rooms,
and there’s the nurse who learned her lesson by once letting two such afflicted teens have a kiss, on her watch, and paid the price, and she’s now the ward’s six-feet-apart nazi.
“Five Feet Apart,” refers to the fact that, while they really should be six feet apart, they’re going to live on the edge and savor the rebelliousness of stepping right up to death’s face and reclaiming one single, solitary foot of space.
Stella’s got about 50 percent lung capacity. A lung transplant would be nice, but one cannot snap one’s fingers and have some new lungs. So will the 11th-hour car crash that yields a pair of organ-donated lungs take? Will her body reject them?
Will Will’s experimental, new pharmaceutical routine take? Will Will and Stella have their love?
Up-and-comer Haley Lu Richardson, recently seen in “Support the Girls,” “Split,” and “The Edge of Seventeen,” is a rising star on a powerful trajectory. She’s deeply truthful. She cries—you cry. She feels joy, and you will too. She’s not quite in Amy Adams’s league of the Ultimate Portrayal of the Visage of Devastating Anguish, but she’s very close.
Richardson is given a very close run for her money by the brooding, dreamy-eyed Sprouse. And director Justin Baldoni, who acts in “Jane the Virgin” on TV, here scores an outstanding feature-film directing debut.
Traditional Versus Modern Longing
So, it doesn’t matter that this review opens with a spoiler, and not because you don’t know which—if not both of them—dies.
It’s because these movies are not about that. These movies are about reminding us that every second of life is precious, and not to take anything for granted. The main theme of the movie is the cystic fibrosis version of Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”
Which makes one wonder whether traditional culture got it right: that long-ago, old-fashioned time, when boys and girls needed chaperones, and there was no such thing as making out, even if they didn’t have lethal saliva.
Did this modern, exacerbated yearning, longing, desire, and feverish romance exist when there were more rules and regulations and traditions and hovering stigmas, and “God is watching you” chastisement, and rule-breaking shame? Maybe. After all, men and boys used to break a sweat when catching a mere glimpse of an exposed female ankle. But one can’t help thinking that back then, maybe ignorance was bliss.
Most cases of cystic fibrosis are diagnosed early. But some much later. In which cases (and one gets the sense it’s the case with these two star-crossed lovers), they’ve led modern, early fooling-around lives, and really know what they’re missing. And so, of course, the desire factor is through the roof.
Regardless, the spiritual takeaway for our modern understanding is that if you could never touch the one(s) you love, you’d burn with such intense desire and pain, it would take over your whole life. So learn this lesson and have gratitude that you can just reach out any time you like, and touch your loved ones.
‘Five Five Apart’
Director: Justin Baldoni
Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hebert Gregory
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Release Date: March 15
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5