Five Feet Apart is more than just a weepy teen drama, which is why people are boycotting it.

In news that will not help you sleep at night, terminal illness has replaced vampires and high school romances as the go-to plot point in teen movies.

From Love Story, to A Walk To Remember, to the wildly popular The Fault In Our Stars, it appears we’re no longer content to just watch teenagers fall in love while navigating the ups and downs of canteen cliques and prom night drama. Instead, the stakes have been raised to include a more realistic set of fears, with star-crossed lovers now being forced to face up to their own mortality before they are even able to share a first kiss.

The newest entry into this pop culture genre, a genre known as ‘sick-flicks’ or ‘sick-lit’ if you’re talking about the books on which they are based, is Five Feet Apart, the new teen drama opening in Australian cinemas this week.

Five Feet Apart tells the story of Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) a teenager with cystic fibrosis who is undergoing treatment in hospital, a brutal treatment regime she approaches with rigid military precision, while also regularly posting a YouTube diary chronicling her life inside the bland walls of the hospital.

Enter Will (Cole Sprouse), a smart-arse teenage boy with cystic fibrosis who arrives at the same hospital and is placed in a room down the hall from Stella so he can undergo a drug trial for the antibiotic-resistant infection he has contracted.

Five Feet Apart is very much a formulaic teen romance, so it’s not really a spoiler to say Stella and Will start off as foes after their very frosty first meeting and discovering the wildly different ways in which they approach their illness. But of course, as they get to know each other, their feelings begin to deepen and they quickly form a deep bond that leads to very lusty feelings.

The kicker here is that due to their cystic fibrosis there is the dangerous risk of cross-infection if they get too close to one another, so they must stay five feet apart at all times.

According to Cystic Fibrosis Australia, cystic fibrosis (CF) primarily affects the lungs and digestive system because of a malfunction in the exocrine system that’s responsible for producing saliva, sweat, tears and mucus. There is currently no cure.

The plot of Five Feet Apart is not based solely on one real-life event or person, but it was inspired by a series of people who live with conditions and illnesses like this every day.

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in Five Feet Apart. Source: Roadshow Films.

The initial storyline was derived from conversations Five Feet Apart director Justin Baldoni had with the late YouTube star Claire Wineland, who had cystic fibrosis and appeared in Baldoni's CW documentary series My Last Days, which followed six people facing terminal illness who strived to make a positive impact on the world before their passing.

The movie, while not directly linked, also bears a  significant resemblance to the real-life story of Katie Prager (nee Donovan) and Dalton Prager's highly-publicised love story — a story that saw them named the 'real-life Fault in Our Stars couple' once their story made international headlines.

The couple met on a Facebook page for sufferers of cystic fibrosis, before meeting (against doctors orders), falling in love and marrying. Dalton Prager died on September 17, 2016 at the age of 25 and five days later, Katie passed away at the age of 26.

With these courageous real-life stories in front of mind, it's impossible to separate reality and lived experience from the fictitious characters and world of Five Feet Apart. 

While the movie publicly aligned with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in fundraising efforts, it's presence on the big screen has still grown into a very divisive cultural event, denounced and boycotted by some people in the cystic fibrosis community, while being celebrated by others.

Elsie Tellier, a 22-year-old Harvard student and blogger who has cystic fibrosis, called for people to avoid seeing the film in a piece on her 65 Pink Roses blog called Boycott Five Feet Apart: The Inherent Ableism of Making Cystic Fibrosis “Relatable” for Healthy People in which she wrote "terminally ill people are not alive just to make healthy people 'appreciate their lives' more.

"Five Feet Apart seeks to diminish our lives, our stories, and our humanity just to create a “tragic” plot for able-bodied people to cry over and I refuse to accept their hypocrisy. In addition, their most recent marketing campaign has been focused, absolutely tone-deaf, on comparing the experience of cystic fibrosis to the feeling of being far apart from a loved one.


Similarly, cystic fibrosis sufferer Jenn Whinnem told Refinery 29 in an interview that "The biggest, most glaring flaw about Five Feet Apart is that if someone is in the hospital for a transplant, there's no way in hell any of their care providers would allow them to be that close to someone else with CF. This really is a life-and-death situation, which the movie reduces to a plot device to make teenagers horny.”

In the same train of thought, Gunnar Esiason, who serves as director of patient outreach at the Boomer Esiason Foundation and writes prominently about his life with cystic fibrosis on his blog penned a post about the movie that states "there’s really nothing romantic about cystic fibrosis, especially in a time when we’re seeing the rise in a multidrug-resistant infection spread from patient to patient across the globe amidst the worldwide antibiotic crisis.

"However, we’re yet to see a great portrayal of cystic fibrosis on the silver screen, and maybe that is something we will get with Five Feet Apart. Ultimately, I hope, more than anything, that this film does become a conduit for disease awareness in a new demographic."

As a film-watching experience for the average movie-goer heading into the cinema without any prior knowledge of the medical condition the project is based on, Five Feet Apart is a mostly enjoyable movie. It's strongest element is the performance of Haley Lu Richardson as Stella as her charismatic and heartbreaking performance practically breaks through the screen in some scenes. Cole Sprouse as Will is a worthy scene partner for her in many ways, but at times it feels like his character is just a pale extension of his popular Riverdale persona.

Watching Five Feet Apart prompted me to do more research into cystic fibrosis and read the thoughts and stories of people living with the condition in order to fully form my thoughts around the film and its place in popular culture.

I'm not going to tell you not to see it, but at the same time know that these characters and this story do not exist in a vacuum, and the intentions of the film must be weighted equally with the voices who are speaking out against it or asking us to take this "teen romance" more seriously.

If you do see the Five Feet Apart, take the time to read and understand the real-life stories of people living with cystic fibrosis.

Five Feet Apart will open in cinemas Australia-wide from Thursday, March 28.

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