Stella Grant: “This whole time, I’ve been living for my treatments, instead of doing my treatments so that I can live. I want to live. It’s just life, Will. It’ll be over before we know it.”
In the 2019 film, Five Feet Apart the bubbly, optimistic Stella Grant unwittingly learns a great deal about life and love within the duration of yet another of her hospital stays because of her Cystic Fibrosis. The incredibly charming, cynical Will Newman also has the same condition as Stella, though he’s contracted a dangerous bacterium known as B. Cepacia (Burkholderia cepacia complex). This bacterium shows far less promise than Stella’s hopeful awaiting of a double lung transplant. For those unaware of what Cystic Fibrosis is, it is an inherited genetic disease that causes the body’s exocrine glands to make thick, sticky mucous which plugs the body’s ducts and other passageways. It is inherited when both parents are carriers of the mutant CFTR gene and have a child, with causes CF. Namely, CF attacks the lungs, liver, pancreas, and intestines (which affects breathing and digestion). It causes chronic lung disease. The sweat glands are also affected, leaving a high content of salt and potassium. CF affects every patient differently and causes a myriad of other symptoms, risks, and challenges- such as contracting B. Cepacia as our Will Newman faces in the film. Like our Will and Stella, for someone with Cystic Fibrosis, every breath matters. Staying on an upward slope of keeping oneself as healthy as possible is crucial. Five Feet Apart is a romantic drama that illuminates the realities and practicalities of someone living with Cystic Fibrosis; fate blossoms an atypical romance story between our two CF patients.
Five Feet Apart brings awareness to a highly underrepresented chronic illness and allows room for conversation, understanding, and empathy surrounding it. It just so happens that this film, directed by the talented Justin Baldoni, is not your typical romance between these two young adults. One factor? It’s not an instantaneous falling in love, based solely on physical attraction. Perhaps it’s a little bit of the enemies to lovers trope, given their initial coolness towards one another. Notably, the sarcasm and rebelliousness of Will, and the eye rolls and annoyance of Stella. Or is that what flirting looks like? Also, I mean, they cannot touch. This brings us to our second factor: Cystic Fibrosis and the required distance of CF patients remaining six feet apart at all times (or two metres if you live in the UK).
So, what role do these two young adults play in each other’s lives?
Unbeknownst to our Will and Stella, they each have something unique to give to the other. Something that adds value- and ends up being invaluable by the end. The film begins with Stella’s return to the hospital, her warm greetings to the staff, and her essential items: her laptop with video cam for her vlogs, her stuffed panda bear, and several cherished items to make the place feel more like “home”. Most notably, a colorful collection of drawings is plastered to whitewashed walls (which we later learn are her sister Abby’s artworks). Recalling popular YouTuber and Cystic Fibrosis patient, Claire Wineland, Stella shares her experiences on the world wide web known as the internet. Claire Wineland was an advisor and cherished core inspiration during the filmmaking (please do check out “Claire’s Place Foundation” founded by Claire, in honor of her legacy). We see that Stella has been allowed to keep her med cart, a privilege for her, when she says to Barb (the cautious, compassionate nurse): “What would I do without you?” Which receives the reply, “You’d die.” Our Cheery Girl™, Stella laughs to this. She is all too familiar with the troubles her condition brings, yet she does her best to stay on the brighter notes of life.
Soon after getting to know Stella Grant’s character (portrayed by the iconic Haley Lu Richardson), we witness that she enjoys organization, control, and following her medical regimen to a perfect T, we are introduced to none other than Will Newman (portrayed by the endearing Cole Sprouse). He comes across as a direct contrast of Stella: a bit cynical, reckless, and the clear picture that certainly the toll of his CF experiences (and current prognosis) has done a number on him. He also has a witty charm about him and is, no doubt, quite the Handsome Lad™. Wait, was that out loud? Stella is both intrigued by Will and steers clear of him, knowing the dangers of possibly developing *feelings* for a fellow CFer. This also includes copious amounts of handwashing, antibacterial sanitizer, social distancing, and face masks. A common reality for CFers, even before the time of Covid-19… *clears throat*. Dr. Hamid tells Will shortly after we meet him: “Will, in order for this to work, you need to keep up with your regimen.” And the ever-so-charming Will offers a sarcastic thumbs-up in response. He is unwilling to participate in attempts to fight the inevitable, as he cannot receive a lung transplant due to the contracted bacterium in his lungs.
We see this dejected hopelessness written on his patient door: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. He even teases Stella (in a dark sort of humor) by pretending to slip off the ledge upon which he began to stand on, in the winter cold, might I add. This gave Stella a fright that he was going to jump, but he only laughed it off and hopped back down. He tells her later, “Stella. You need to lighten up. It’s just life; it’ll be over before we know it”. There it is. He’s willing to face the facts, but not put in the effort to better his condition- through following his regimen. Our determined Stella establishes a deal between them: She helps Will establish his regimen that he must follow, and in turn, he gets to draw her. Thing is, he’s an artist. Thus, our plot points that follow are set in motion by this act, and the genuine bond they develop in fondness and affection for one another. It’s readable in their eyes and sweet little gestures: they start to slowly fall in love *sighs whimsically*. And here, the three Fates weave the tale of Will and Stella in beautiful embroidery. Over video calls, texts, and daily reminders from an app Stella created, the pair become connected and start to participate in following their respective treatments together- safely, of course. Prescription pills taken with chocolate pudding, AffloVest sessions, exercise in the gym, video chats, and walks in the hospital all combine for bonding- for a freer Stella Grant and more hopeful Will Newman. We learn over the course of time and various scenes that Stella has an entire list of things she wishes to experience, and a master [bucket] list, of course. Who doesn’t have something special they desire to experience, see, do, or accomplish in life? Our two young adults discuss the ways they’d like to spend their lives, and it’s a big deal for those who don’t know exactly how much time they have left.
During the time that Will draws Stella whilst she sits in the windowsill, they converse, and we also witness a genuine desire from Will, after some humor. He wants to travel and see the world, more than only the sterile insides of hospitals. This is another moment of connection that many battling an illness or medical condition can relate to: the longing to experience more of life and in a better quality of life, just like everyone else. A chronic illness can be a ruthless and cruel dictator. Each of our young adult lovers is balancing a lot on their plate, even aside from CF. Will feels the loneliness of constantly moving around, trying to make his mother happy, work on his art, and be himself and live his life. Stella, we learn, is still grieving the loss of her older sister, Abby. Her parents are divorced and she’s trying to stay afloat in being the glue for everyone else that she’s lost sight of living for herself. Grief can destroy a person. This vulnerability, pain, and desire for freedom, love, and life that we are witness to from both Will and Stella convincingly combine to form sincere, authentic characters that are incredibly relatable. There are so many layers to both of them. And not to mention, Stella’s best friend, Poe additionally carries his share of layers (who also has CF and is portrayed by Moises Arias). Think of Will and Stella as a sort of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and Capulets forbidden to fall in love- both with risks, romance, consequences, and a transformation resulting from the impact of each other’s lives. Shakespeare (or ‘Good old Willie’, as my bestie says…) did write tragedies, you know…*clears throat*
Annnnnd, that’s not yet the end. Let’s explore further. What say we?
Complications also arise when Stella’s G-tube (the gastrostomy tube that helps the patient receive the vital nutrients and calories they need) becomes infected. She becomes anxious and admits to Will that it’s her first surgery without her sister’s supportive presence. What does Will do? He sneaks undercover, complete in surgical garb, to place Abby’s flowery lung drawing on the ceiling of Stella’s surgery room and gives her a little support before she’s put under the anesthesia: by also singing the song “A Bushel and a Peck”. It is hands down, one of the sweetest moments between Will’s gesture and Stella’s gratitude. Both actors portray the physical, mental, and emotional struggles in a highly accurate and believable manner- as much as can be done with a Hollywood film. I know that those with CF can correct me here (please do inform me further on this, and your receptiveness to this film).
Our Handsome Lad™ gets caught by Barb after his gesture for Stella, which throws him into a downward spiral as the reality that he can make Stella lose any chance of getting new lungs if she were to receive his bacteria. He can jeopardize her health and life, and he pushes away from her. A natural, human reaction. Will wants to protect Stella, and Stella (our Cheery Girl™) becomes tired of sacrificing so much because of CF. She tries to get Will to fight it, with her by creating a video documenting this frustration. This being after a missed date and pleading with Will, Poe calling Stella out, and vice versa. The reaction? Stella films a live video on social media and declares: “Ta-da! Here’s a pool cue. It measures approximately five feet. Five feet. I’ve given a lot of thought to foot number six. And you know what? It made me mad. When you have cystic fibrosis, so much is taken from you. You live every day of your life according to treatments, and pills, and schedules. Most of us can’t have children. A lot of us don’t even live long enough to try to have children. Shit, it’s complicated to try to explain, but it’s even hard to fall in love. So, after all that CF has stolen from me, from us, I don’t mind stealing a little something back. One foot. One f***ing foot of space of distance, of length, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t mind stealing that back. Because, CF, you’re not the thief anymore. I’m the thief now.” A small triumph is still a triumph. Fueled by Stella’s rebellion against Cystic Fibrosis, Will agrees to take the risk for love. With this forbidden romance of our dear Will and Stella, they decide to try to make their relationship work- they get creative with their approach to dates and the ways they can bond with one another further. An adorable hide-and-seek date is set in motion by Stella, for Will to follow the clues written and hidden within the purple balloons placed throughout the hospital. This detail here is significant, for purple is the official color for Cystic Fibrosis and CF awareness. And I don’t know about you, but as a hopeless romantic, the whole hide-and-seek idea is immensely sweet. ANYWAY.
After throwing Will a birthday party alongside Poe and friends of Will and Stella, the party and fun get cut short by Barb’s discovery of the occasion. They are again reminded of the dangers and a tragic incident occurs, which puts everything into a heightened perspective. Will is being forced to transfer to a different hospital because of his relationship (and said recklessness) with Stella, and it is then that Stella finds him all packed through the glass of a waiting room lobby. She ushers him out to meet her, and together they partake in what they believe is their last walk together- they go to see the lights Stella and Abby used to love. The two of them end up on a frozen lake, skating and talking, meanwhile Stella’s phone is being blown up over texts regarding a set of lungs that is a match being prepared for Stella. Unbeknownst to Will, until his mother notifies him. He urges Stella to take the lungs, to take the chance for even five more years, during which better treatments can be developed. Stella scoffs at all the effort and the short length of five years in the grander scale of life. Will begins walking to take her back to the hospital, but behind him, Stella slips off the bridge onto the frozen lake below. We watch as Will yells her name. Honestly, it’s a very tense scene. Can you imagine? The ice cracks beneath her and she falls through, sinking lower into the freezing, dark waters below *shivers*. Terrifying.
Picture it: Stella falling, sinking deeper and scrambling for air, reaching for the surface. Will, swiftly going to the gaping hole where Stella fell through. He grasps and finally pulls her back out onto the ice, removes his oxygen, and takes as deep a breath as he can. Will, with all his limited breath, performs CPR on Stella. Mind you, the risk of bacteria transfer through saliva is still very present. Regardless of the chance of infecting her with B. Cepacia, she will certainly die if he does nothing. He gives her all of the breath he can muster, working tirelessly to bring her back, and eventually collapses next to her as she chokes out gulps of water. Will also could have died, risking his own life to save her. Luckily, their whereabouts were notified, and an ambulance arrives shortly after. In a rather realistic and deeply moving series of events, Stella agrees to take the set of lungs and Will performs a sweet last gesture to show Stella how much she means to him. Their love for one another has grown and developed throughout the film, and they’ve each changed in significant ways *wipes away the falling tears*.
They’ve shown each other that taking certain risks, like allowing themselves to fall in love with each other, is a treasure that they each can hold on to. That Stella can fight the grief and that Will is strong enough to let go, that loving someone is more than being with them. That Will has gained more hope and lived in seeing the world through art, meaning, and love. That Stella doesn’t have to live only for her treatments, but instead, they enable her to have a better, more fulfilled life. That the importance of the influences they’ve had on each other, the gift of their friendship and the outcome of the time they’ve shared are invaluable. That love is more than being able to touch someone; that it isn’t so shallow and goes deeper into the affection, bond, and relationship two people share. That touch and the time with another person isn’t to be taken lightly or for granted, because life is all so fragile, and it burns so intensely that the fuse is far too short to be kept for long.
It is also true that Cystic Fibrosis may be a rare condition, but it affects so many and so vastly. More awareness and research are necessary for improvements to be made as well as the continued quality of life for CF patients.
Ultimately, it’s a wake-up call and a film portraying chronic illness and a layered, atypical romance than the usual romantic drama that so appeals to young adults. I think that Stella Grant sums up a poignant thought: “Human touch. Our first form of communication. Safety, security, comfort, all in the gentle caress of a finger. Or the brush of lips on a soft cheek. It connects us when we’re happy, bolsters us in times of fear, excites us in times of passion and love. We need that touch from the one we love, almost as much as we need air to breathe. But I never understood the importance of touch. His touch. Until I couldn’t have it. So, if you’re watching this, and you’re able, touch him. Touch her. Life’s too short to waste a second.” Stella and Will taught us so much. (Yes, I am aware that they’re fictional characters).
Cystic Fibrosis is a condition that I have given some study to and welcome being further educated on it. Chronic illness is something close to my heart that I will always seek to approach with empathy and support. Five Feet Apart is a beautiful film made by a team that cared deeply to accurately portray this condition and create a moving love story that touches on so many themes that anyone can relate to and admire. If you feel so inclined, do check out the film for your viewing pleasure and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for more information on CF. With that, I bid you adieu and wish you a lovely day.
See you in the funny papers,
The Wallflower Maiden