The thing about movies is that we usually come into them with our own baggage. Maybe we’re overly familiar with the well-worn tropes of a given genre. Maybe we liked the director’s last film, or we absolutely loathe their style. Maybe we have too many Twitter-spoilers rattling around in our heads, or we just saw a nasty TMZ headline about the lead actor. There’s almost always something. The few occasions when we’re able to sit down and watch a movie, unfettered by the background noise of associations and expectations, are precious. So perhaps it was my good fortune that I walked into an afternoon screening of Five Feet Apart, the latest YA sick-teens-fall-in-love novel-turned-film, with basically no preconceptions. It’s the debut feature from director Justin Baldoni (Rafael on Jane the Virgin). The critical disease in question is cystic fibrosis, something I know next to nothing about. I’ve heard of stars Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in passing, but can’t think of anything I’ve seen them in (no, not even Riverdale). But most crucially: I haven’t watched a single damn sick-teens-fall-in-love movie like… ever? From A Walk To Remember to The Fault In Our Stars, I’ve skipped them all — unless you wanna count Macauley Culkin getting stung by those bees in My Girl, but that’s a stretch.
Point is, I really didn’t know what to expect from Five Feet Apart as a romance about teenagers who are probably about to die, other than that it would try to jerk some tears. But there is a genre I’m super well-versed in, and it’s all about teenagers who are probably about to die…
Horror. And lemme tell ya, Five Feet Apart is basically the bloodless horror flick nobody asked for.
Think about it. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that causes the mucus in various organs to become thick and sticky — blocking airways, preventing nutrients from being absorbed, and trapping germs. The risk of infection is enormous, and because the lungs of CF patients in particular have become an ideal mucus-y environment for bacteria to grow, one of the biggest dangers to people with CF is coming into close contact with another person who has CF — and may be carrying a dangerous strain of something nasty just waiting to be transmitted. This is what has led to the “six feet apart” rule, a safety precaution to keep people with CF from spreading infections between each other.
Which you have to admit is one hell of a scary setup, ripe with disturbing potential. But it would be too easy to say that the diabolical threat facing our heroes is just a disease, or bacteria, or their own bodies. True horror is always more concerned with the human condition than the headcount, and it’s here that Five Feet Apart is absolutely remarkable. The real danger to these young lovers is each other. It’s… love itself. It’s the basic human desire to touch, and be touched, and find comfort together physically as well as emotionally. And it’s inescapable! The thing to fear is our own need for that which we can never have. The film, like so many other horror flicks before it, unspools dread from the tension between the inevitable fate looming over the characters’ heads and the inevitable mistakes they are bound to make simply because they’re young, and foolish, and prone to ignoring all the rules. Sure, nobody runs upstairs when they should have run outside. Nobody has sex instead of remaining a virgin. But tell a girl she has to stay six feet away from the hot artsy dude she’s crushing on because both their lives literally depend on it, and she’ll find a way to wheedle it down to five feet — and then all hell breaks loose.
Our heroine is Stella (Richardson), a young woman who holds onto her optimism with a fervor only someone with serious control issues could maintain (she also claims she’s OCD). She reorganizes her med cart for fun, and drafts lengthy to-do lists for everything, and livestreams constant updates about her treatment on YouTube. She’s the sort of goody-two-shoes that makes a prime Final Girl candidate. Her perfect foil is Will (Sprouse), the flop-haired pessimist to her optimist, and a cartoonist to boot. He’s like J.D. from Heathers meets A.J. from Empire Records, only with dimples and a full first name. Oh, and ENORMOUS combat boots, which he wears with designer sweatpants because he does not give a f*ckkkkk. His cardinal sin is being ready to give up hope — or maybe her sin is giving him hope anew? Either way, they latch onto each other less out of shared interest and more out of proximity and lack of options, given that they are rooming on the same hospital floor for their treatments. It’s the curiosity of like-meets-like rather than the magnetic pull of a meet-cute, but both actors are aggressively charming and make it work through willpower alone. Richardson is like the American Girl Doll version of Emilia Clarke, all eyebrows and sparkling teeth, while Sprouse manages to spout bullshit aphorisms like “It’s just life, it’ll be over before you know it” and make it a character trait rather than a flaw. I can’t fault their chemistry, even if nothing in the script seems to justify their attachment to one another.
I called this a bloodless horror film, and I mean it — mostly. There is some death, but you totally see it coming from a mile away, so it’s no different than your average slasher in that regard (my first notes on one character in particular simply read: “totes gonna die”). But even though the body count is small, the idea of death is all over this thing. Stella, Will, their friends and families, and the hospital staff — all of them are grappling with mortality constantly. If horror hides a killer in every shadow, then Five Feet Apart hides it in time itself. Death isn’t a question of if, but when. And while that may be true for all of us, it’s especially real to Stella and Will, who go through extensive daily treatments just to hold on. We see the effort they put in just to maintain their existence, in the hopes of one day being healthy enough to live the life they want, even if only for a little while. Yet every moment, every choice could be the one to bring it all to an end. So the camera lingers on the rubber gloves, the hand-washing, the stacks of pill containers, the respiratory masks and the nasal tubes — all the little survival rituals that mark their days. And it takes pains to frame the space, the very air between Stella and Will as if it’s Freddy running his knives down a pipe, or the lawn where Michael’s body just was: charged with expectation, and dread. We as the audience are as powerless to stop what’s coming as they are.
And that dread builds straight through to a cluttered, busy climax that proves no one is getting out of this unscathed. If most horror taps into our primal fears, then Five Feet Apart proves there is more to fear than fear itself: namely, our other urges. There are costs to survival, and things you must give up along the way, and all you’re left with is the question, “Is it worth it?”
This film pits love and life against one another — and one of them just isn’t enough.
It’s an ending that would be disappointing, were this an actual romance movie. But it isn’t. It’s just par for the course in the horror realm — where cystic fibrosis and teen hormones are the cinematic villains that’ll still be around for a sequel.
Header Image Source: CBS Films (via YouTube)