Love and restraint: Thoughts on ‘Five Feet Apart’

Five Feet Apart - pool scene

Eh, so I don’t get out much. And I definitely don’t get to the movies often. But something about the previews for “Five Feet Apart” inspired me to request babysitting for two squirrelly toddlers and arrange a date night for us to get out on a Friday night to see this film.

It’s been a week, and I just keep thinking about it.

On the surface, at least, “Five Feet Apart” looks like another riff on “The Fault In Our Stars,” which I liked but don’t remember loving. (At least, I think that’s the case? Straight-up had to re-read my review, because that was 2014, friends. The ol’ brain ain’t the same post-kids.)

Given I’m prone to anxiety on a normal day, I definitely don’t need to throw existential characters with life-threatening diseases into the mix. But this movie — focused on Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse), teens who meet in the hospital as they grapple with complications of cystic fibrosis — was not depressing. I mean, it certainly had its heart-tugging moments . . . and I was ugly-sniffling, for sure.

But after the lights came up, I was only a mini-disaster. I looked at my husband and thought, I’m a human. I’m alive. I have time.

What am I doing with it?

Five Feet Apart snow scene

In many ways, “Five Feet Apart” is about restraint. Will shouldn’t fall in love with Stella, but he does. Stella wants to let herself fall back, but it isn’t that simple. Their illness requires the pair to stay physically apart, lest they risk life-threatening cross infection.

Six feet (later: five feet, per Stella’s request). No holding hands. No hugging. No kissing. Absolutely no intimacy.

Think about it: two 17-year-olds who are all mixed up under that crazy, amazing, whacky first-love spell . . . and they cannot touch. Stella and Will’s relationship is carried out from a safe, respectable distance or through the modern marvels of FaceTime, though their hospital rooms are just a few doors apart.

Five Feet Apart chatting

There is electricity in the waiting. In the wondering. In the hoping-against-hope — though as an audience, we know this cannot happen. They don’t have the luxury of indulging their feelings. There is no sharp exhale of relief when their lips finally meet. Loose ends cannot be tied.

But man, I wanted them to tie.

Our on-demand, two-day-free-Prime-shipping lifestyles today don’t lend themselves to the restraint and sacrifice required of Will and Stella. That’s what stood out to me: we’re all told to go for what we want and make it happen!, but sometimes we can only be brave in the face of hard choices.

“Five Feet Apart” isn’t perfect; few movies are. The ending felt rushed and over-the-top after such a steady, sweet progression. But that ruined nothing. Sprouse does dark and broody so well, and his character is jaded and vulnerable with an innate goodness that hurts. Richardson’s Stella is nuanced, realistic, sweet and strong. I loved the two together. And I loved this movie.

The film has sparked conversation and controversy in and out of the cystic fibrosis community, and it’s not for me to weigh in. But I will say that I left the theater with a better, if imperfect understanding of a disease I’d known very little about (even working in healthcare marketing, where we pride ourselves on amassing medical knowledge). More than 30,000 Americans have CF, and funding is needed for ongoing research to find a cure.

The moral of the story is one we’ve heard a hundred, maybe a thousand times: life is short. Reach out. Take a chance. Be bold. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

But “Five Feet Apart” stood apart for me because of the ache in my chest and feel-feel-feelings it stirred up, both while watching and thinking about it again. And again. And again. I often reached over to press my fingers into my husband’s arm, the two of us trading glances that said wow this is good and so sad and man I love you. 

It’s haunting. It broke my heart . . . and healed it, too.

Can’t ask too much more of date night.

 

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