by Paul Deeter
It's 2002. You're in middle-school. Nelly's playing the song 'Hot in Herre' on the radio and being very suggestive of adult behavior. The Harry Potter books are coming out faster than you can read them. And the movies? Well they're perfect for you, because you're a young romantic. Disney's Tuck Everlasting asks the viewers whether young love is worth the option of eternal life, years before the book Twilight was written. Four years prior Titanic challenged love against the unstoppable nature of history. Jack and Rose' romance everlasting even years after Jack's death, in the memory of Rose, a modern survivor of the Titanic. If you're young and malleable and soaking up modern music and literature and are enchanted by the ideas of true romance and the power of love in cinema, then you're in the perfect status quo for a film like A Walk to Remember. Adam Shankman struck gold with the idea to make a Nicholas Sparks' novel into a full-length Hollywood film. Sparks would be a treasure trove of content for future-young adult romance stories, even though his characters were portrayed as much younger in the film adaptations. The Notebook came out after in 2004, and this would inspire countless sugar-filled PG-13 love tales for tweens and teens adapted from the writing of Sparks' , with his appeal for cliche over character development. While The Notebook was in talks before the 2000s, A Walk to Remember got there first, and changed the romance scene from its broad stroke high school coming-of-age movies of the 80s and the trend of long-distance romance movies that ran the 90s. The 00s and A Walk to Remember amped up the game, and while some other twists on Rom-Coms would include concepts as wild as time travel to create distance between lovers, AWTR brought the unfortunate card of the dying girl into the playing field.
I've never seen A Walk to Remember, but I know its legacy, with its influence on 2000s teen television shows and literature. For example, Shankman made the decision to cast younger actors to portray the roles of the lead lovers in the novel, which was a huge factor in speaking to younger audiences with similar romantic aspirations. Shankman also (smartly) cast Mandy Moore as the lead female lover, which was appropriate for her age and also popularity in the pop music scene, making her more in touch with both younger viewers and listeners. I also know its (maybe less intentional) thematic legacy. The premise of the film is almost carbon copy as, let's face it, most romantic comedies. Guy loves Girl, Girl can't love Guy back due to family problems or status quo, or any other number of issues. But eventually, things get easier for G & G, the walls come down. That is, in this case, until the unpreventable happens. Girl gets sick, in this case it's Leukemia. Incurable. It can't ever be that easy, huh? The concept of an end in sight for lovers; it's bleak but it makes a great story. Enough so at least that AWTR made four times its budget back in box office, and would have a major DVD release. Therein lies the other reason I know of this film, because I've known so many classmates, friends and even family who has owned this and only this movie on DVD. It's a cult sensation, and despite mostly negative reviews has lived on as a romance favorite for many of its older, original viewers.
If it ain't broke don't fix it! At least that's what the behind the scenes consensus was for this morbid twist on the original concept. While the popularity of this film premise took a bit of a pause, it came back headstrong with John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars a novel about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love despite their illnesses. This film benefitted from two strong lead performances by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, as they wander the unfamiliar territory of romance and, before unimaginable, hope. The movie was a success, leaned heavily on a 'hip' modern soundtrack (we'll get back to that later) and moved teenage audiences to tears over its tragic tale. But what was so unique about The Fault in Our Stars that made it the book and film hit it was? While this movie didn't attempt to display a relatable romance between two young lovers, it asked the female (and male) viewers to imagine themselves in their condition. It inspired a new lease on life. Because using young lingo, independent music and fresh handsome faces is a key to relating youthful audiences to two otherwise circumstantially cursed characters, right? If you couldn't tell from my interpretation with the film and its legacy, I'm not a fan of TFIOS although a younger version of myself was. I think this trope, which did catch on like wildfire, is truly manipulative and tricks viewers into over-sentimentality through weak storytelling.
And now I'm older! And more of a grump, apparently. I'm not entirely disillusioned to the idea of unconventional romances in film. But the idea of a film about two kids in an overwhelmingly unfortunate situation being milked for viewership is... yuck. Like I said before, the trope became somewhat (contagious?) overdone, and a big slew of 'sick kid' film started trending. Everything, Everything (2017) despite being a film unique for its casual depiction of an interracial relationship, suffers from sameiness otherwise. It features the young teenage girl who's locked into house arrest because of her debilitating condition that any foreign touch or environment could send her into seizure or worse: death. Her curiosity however draws her to Rear Window style spy on the cute neighbor boy and well, love finds away. There's a solid third act twist here with her sickness, but for the majority of the film we're just rehashing the concept of love on a time limit due to uncontrollable circumstances. There's Midnight Sun in 2018 (girl can't go out into the sun due to a condition, but falls for boy), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in 2015 (a solid outlier of the cancer girl story due to not being a romance) and The Space Between Us from 2018. This is a sci-fi social distancing movie based on a boy from Mars unable to withstand Earth's atmosphere, and what does that dummy do? Well he falls in love with an Earth girl.
So yesterday I was made aware of the film Five Feet Apart, which was available on Netflix and surprised me going in because of its timely release date. Five Feet Apart was released theatrically in 2019 on the premise of a teenage girl named Stella who has cystic fibrosis and falls for another CF patient named Will. Haley Lu Richardson plays Stella, whose hospital experience is made easier by her genuine relationship with her nurse and the use of a YouTube channel to outlet her experiences good and bad. Meanwhile Will is played by a wildly matured Cole Sprouse, who is in the same condition but is more of a loner, perhaps more jaded to the idea of exploring friendship in his state. The two meet as patients in the same clinic, and despite strong discouragement from health professionals and their family they fall for each other. But their relationship remains somewhat responsible; they decide to date each other that they can never touch and must keep five feet away from each other at all times. Why five feet, isn't it supposed to be six? Well the reason being is that Stella thinks she's earned that extra foot, because of her struggle and society's stress to keep it the status quo. The status quo, I'm not kidding. If you're not groaning by now, all my respect to you.
Not only is this concept overcooked, it's almost offensive. It was met with general disapproval at a 53% Rotten Tomatoes score, and the sour feeling I felt while watching the film was resounded with its response by the critics who know best: the CF community. Responses from the cystic fibrosis community have been mixed. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation welcomed the opportunity to raise awareness about the struggle many patients experience with the disease, while others found fault with the film's depiction of medically dangerous behavior. Others voiced concern about a terminal illness being romanticized and trivialized as a Hollywood teen love plot device. It's certainly not through malice, or ill will that Five Feet Apart leans on this condition, and there's nothing wrong with raising awareness about the community in a respectful way. A good example of respectful awareness would be the film Crip Camp (2020) which is a documentary that has moments of lightness and romance with respect to the disabled community, without using it to soak sympathy from the audience unfairly. We are open to a new way of thinking, and given a new perspective to that which is not easily understandable from our place of privilege.
But is it not privileged that directors and writers in Hollywood can use films like Five Feet Apart to tell a young-adult romance story without actually doing anything additionally for the CF community except general awareness. Seems more like these films lean on the conditions of their sick characters without actually exploring what's more to that life, what the community needs and what viewers can do to expand their perspective on the matter. If it isn't CF, it's cancer, or an unknown illness that masks the trope in an even murkier shade of recognition. And like I mentioned before, Five Feet Apart more than borrows from the soundtrack of Fault, with independent (relatable!) teen-aimed music, to try to squeeze out tears while we fawn over the general attraction between the two young lovebirds. Additionally, this film came out a year before the Covid-19 pandemic started. Does this hurt the film's legacy or help it? It makes me wonder how young adults might have explored love or friendship at this time, since we were all pretty much put in a kind of relatable spot, at least temporarily. To conclude my issue with this film, it's just downright bad. Worse it's lazy. Laziness has allowed tropes like these to survive, to financially succeed, to dumb down modern audiences into believing that these scenarios don't exist outside the big screen.
What do we do about these films? Do we stand idly by as films in their own cliches continue to get made, if they're successful and garner at least a niche audience. I don't particularly think these movies are dangerous or immoral in any way, but I believe the larger issue of ignorance towards those less fortunate is bolstered by its portrayal in Hollywood. Let's use our privilege to continue to understand these issues beyond our scope of experience but also to see them outside of fictional premise as well. Come on folks, we're smarter than this. Let's challenge trope and tradition to ask for stronger and fresher content. And maybe that content will hold more respect to communities other than their own.