Five Feet Apart
Directed by Justin Baldoni
A film about love challenged, or perhaps cut short, by disease is nothing original. For older viewers it’s almost de rigeur to harken back to 1970’s “Love Story” with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. For others, one of the better, more recent iterations of the breed was “The Fault in Our Stars” starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, based on the book by John Green (“Paper Towns”).
The biggest difference between most of these films and Justin Baldoni’s “Five Feet Apart,” whether or not it pre-dates the romance, is generally the affliction (or afflictions) that changes and/or interrupts an otherwise relatively ordinary life. Sure, “The Fault in Our Stars” throws cancer at both of the main characters, but the outcome or outcomes are still at least somewhat unknown.
In “Five Feet Apart,” Stella and Will (Hayley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse) meet during treatments for cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that primarily compromises the lungs and which has no cure. Thus, the prospect or risk of death is and has been a constant rather than a new development. And the film transcends the simplicity of the tragic teen romance by considering lives spent with that knowledge. For Stella, who expresses herself through her upbeat and hopeful web videos, it makes every moment precious, while for Will it makes everything seem futile, as seen in his darkly comedic cartoons.
Meanwhile, for Stella’s gay best friend and long-time treatment buddy Poe (Moises Arias), his disease represents not just the challenge of remaining relatively healthy but also of paying for it – and the idea that loving him is necessarily accompanied by a sense of responsibility and burden. For all of them, there’s a recurring sense not just of absent personal opportunities, but of the great cost their disease and their ultimate deaths have on those around them, and a reluctance to get figuratively close to people only to unavoidably hurt them. (The title stems from the complications of getting more literally close to each other, at least with other sufferers, due to the risk of co-infection – although it’s also hard not to think of it as “The Fault in Our Lungs.”)
There’s another level to this kind of consideration, beyond even disease, as it reflects also the experiences of others who live entire lives with clocks ticking towards the inevitable or the uncompromising. The displaced, the Dreamers, the undocumented – and all those others who can’t look at a loved one and promise “I’ll always be here for you.”
Director Justin Baldoni, in his narrative feature debut, is helped by a young cast with long resumes – albeit also with looks that seem to retain their headshot appeal even when struggling to breathe. And the material here is changed by virtue of an inevitability that defines entire lives rather than interrupting them – the difference between a long life cut short and a short life lived long.
“Giant Little Ones”
Directed by Keith Behrman
Another teen drama opens this week, “Giant Little Ones” considers the fallout from an unplanned sexual encounter after a 17th birthday party. What actually happened is left somewhat blurry onscreen so the audience is initially almost as in the dark as the unlit participants. But the story is less about what happened than what happened next for the two boys, neither whom previously identified, at least openly, as gay.
But the film struggles in at least a couple of ways. At first, it seems to try desperately hard to reassure us as quickly as possible that homosexuality isn’t either unheard of or something frowned upon by Franky (Josh Wiggins, “Max”), the central character. His best friend is LGBTQ and curious about both gender and anatomy and, if that wasn’t enough in the first few minutes, we then discover his father is also gay. And while Franky’s relationship with his father is strained, it’s more because of the damage to his mother and their marriage than because of whom his father loves. Oh, and there’s a gay kid on the swim team at school.
But the film also suffers from both a poster image and a tagline that suggest a different story. In the poster, Franky appears to gaze longingly at best friend Ballas, as though what happens between them is planned or at least desired by Franky. And the tagline “Love without labels. Live without regret.” seems to suggest a different outcome, or at least a more rapid outcome.
“Giant Little Ones” is a fairly straightforward (!) story about the manner in which what other people think and say is often more critical and impactful than what we ourselves think and do. And at that level it works and is believable. But it would probably be a better film if it didn’t complicate itself with multiple (and less believable in their number) subplots about others dealing with parallel experiences, promotional content that feels like it should accompany a different film, and a co-star that looks more like a teacher than another student.