Five Feet Apart
"Five Feet Apart" tells the story of two cystic-fibrosis patients who fall in love. But as with any fictional account of a terminal illness, the risk of romanticization is high. (Illustration by Luca Bowles, Kingston University)
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Five Feet Apart

As the best friend of a CF patient, I found myself pleasantly surprised.

The movie “Five Feet Apart” tells the story of two young cystic fibrosis patients who fall in love. It is based on the book of the same name by Rachael Lippincott, with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. The movie, starring Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, premiered on March 15, with CF patients getting a special first screening.

Richardson’s character, Stella, shares her life and struggles with the disease on YouTube. She is a highly motivated, responsible individual with clinical OCD, which causes her to be very organized, especially when it comes to doing her treatments. Stella is in the hospital for treatment when she meets Will Newman (Sprouse), another CF patient who is undergoing a clinical trial. Will’s condition is worse than Stella’s because he has B. cepacia, a bacterial infection in his lungs that makes his life expectancy shorter and causes him to be ineligible for a lung transplant.

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I was admittedly nervous. My best friend has cystic fibrosis, and I’ve watched her experience the disease over the years. I’ve seen the treatments and technology change, I’ve sat with her in the hospital while she underwent many drug trials and I’ve been at countless fundraising and awareness events. I was worried that “Five Feet Apart” would romanticize the experiences of terminal patients.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and pancreas. This can lead to respiratory inflammation, infection and failure. It can also contribute to malnutrition and poor growth. While there is currently no cure, medical advancements have revolutionized treatment and have brought the average lifespan of a CF patient from 10 years old in 1962 to 37.5 currently. This number is expected to continue increasing.

There are over 30,000 people living with CF in the United States, the majority of whom were diagnosed before the age of 2. In the past, it was common for these people to attend events and get to know each other. There were even summer camps for children with CF. However, scientists now know that cross-infection is possible. CF patients can catch each other’s bacteria and worsen the disease. As a precaution, it’s highly recommended that they remain 6 feet apart at all times.

This 6-feet-apart rule plays a large role in the movie. For one, it prevents Stella and Will from being able to be together. However, Stella decides that cystic fibrosis has taken so much from her that she wants to take something back: 1 foot. She makes an agreement with Will to remain 5 feet apart rather than 6, as a symbolic gesture of taking control and not allowing her disease to dictate all of her decisions.

My best friend hasn’t seen the movie, and I don’t think she’s going to, but I thought I would give it a shot. After seeing “Five Feet Apart” and rewatching a couple parts, I think the best word to describe it is “sweet.” Young love is always endearing, especially when there’s a forbidden aspect. The plot certainly pulls at the heartstrings of the audience, and I think it’s worth watching during a girls’ night in.

The characters are likable, and I think the producers did a good job of not romanticizing cystic fibrosis. Spoiler alert: Stella and Will don’t end up together. Despite the fact that it makes for a relatively sad ending, I think it was incredibly important for reality to prevail. Teenagers should not put their lives in danger for a month-long romance, and I’m very glad that the characters ultimately realized what was best for them.

I think my biggest complaint is that the tone of the film implied that teenage cystic fibrosis patients are in danger of dying at basically any moment. In one scene, one of Stella’s friends who had CF died suddenly, even though they were perfectly fine the day earlier. The likelihood of this occurrence in real life is incredibly low. As mentioned earlier, the average life expectancy of a CF patient is 37.5 years old and even higher for those who were first diagnosed in the 2000s.

Of course, the impending sense of doom accompanied by the constant risk of death is for dramatic purposes, and I recognize that Hollywood reserves the right to amp things up for entertaining content. Furthermore, Stella was loosely based on Claire Wineland, a woman with CF who shared her story with the world through YouTube. Wineland died at the age of 21, so perhaps the filmmakers were using the severity of her condition as a model for the characters. However, this is not the case for many CF patients, who live relatively healthy lives long into adulthood.

The underlying issue here is the lack of hope that I felt “Five Feet Apart” presented. The characters in the movie are pretty accepting of their early deaths. And, while I think it’s important to capture the despair that comes with a terminal disease, I also think it’s important to show some glimmer of hope. My best friend and her family truly believe that a cure for cystic fibrosis will be found in her lifetime, and I believe that too. I wish this movie had incorporated some more of that.

Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy “Five Feet Apart.” When I asked my best friend’s parents what they thought about it, they also said they liked it. Her mom pointed out that, even if it had been terrible, she would have been appreciative of the media attention and awareness that it garnered for cystic fibrosis. The more people that are aware of the disease and what it does, the more hope there is for a cure. As the bumper sticker on their family car says, maybe one day CF will stand for cure found.

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