Wearing ribbons and outfitting football players in hot pink may be a great way to acknowledge Breast Cancer Awareness month, but they don’t bring home the complexity of emotions and consequences associated with the illness like “Five,” the star-studded original movie from Lifetime. With a dream team of producers, directors, writers and stars, this is more than a message movie; it’s artful storytelling at its finest, focusing on the human considerations of a disease that afflicts one in eight women.
While star wattage is on display throughout, it is a feeling of sisterhood that makes “Five” all the more powerful. More than anything, this collaboration subtly reflects the subject itself: Cancer doesn’t discriminate against egos, paychecks or careers, but cuts across all dividing lines of society.
What these five vignettes do so well is represent a broad spectrum of stories without looking like pie-chart storytelling. Each segment, with its own distinct feel and character, could stand alone, yet are woven together in sentiment, united in a common theme. Jeanne Tripplehorn, as an oncologist named Pearl, brings a layer of continuity by appearing in all five stories.
Demi Moore’s piece, “Charlotte,” the first of “Five,” is a flashback to 1969 — a time when emotions, cancer and death were just whispered discussions among adults. Told from a child’s point of view, viewers feel the confusion, mystery and sadness of 7-year-old Pearl (Ava Acres) who can’t understand why her mom, Charlotte (Ginnifer Goodwin), is so sick. It doesn’t help that none of the adults, especially her despondent father (Josh Holloway), ever tells her the truth. Moore captures the out-of-body experience of personal tragedy through observational camera work, and creates a distinct retro feel as the story explores the intersection of personal and global events — here, the first moon walk and Charlotte’s last day.
Jennifer Aniston is behind the camera for “Mia,” a unique look at a cancer patient’s unexpected second chance. Aniston’s take on sickness, recovery and grief is not always linear. There are relapses, setbacks and moments of unexpected joy and laughter in the worst possible moments. Patricia Clarkson displays all of that as the formidable Mia, who “has a few things to get off what’s left of (her) chest before it’s too late.”
If the Charlotte vignette suggests that events in our lives determine who we are, Mia’s story illustrates the distinction between those who run to us and those who flee in a time of need — and, through Clarkson’s performance, delivers the most spirited voice of a cancer patient.
“Cheyanne,” directed by Penelope Spheeris, focuses on the atypical in terms of diagnosis, culture and image — but is possibly the most moving. Cheyanne (Lyndsy Fonseca) is a newlywed stripper whose husband Tommy (Taylor Kinney) is the muscle for a loan shark. Her diagnosis with a severe form of breast cancer is not only an economic hardship, it threatens her very identity. The juxtaposition of the tough and the tender is brought home as Tommy finds help and advice from the degenerate gambler Lenny (David Eigenberg) he’s hired to beat up.
Similarly, Alicia Keys’ story “Lili” is less about cancer itself than its effect on family and friends. Lili (Rosario Dawson) not only has to deal with her own diagnosis, but the reaction of her overbearing mother Maggie (Jenifer Lewis) and her competitive sister (Tracee Ellis Ross). Keys’ vignette is about perspective — a view of cancer through another’s eyes, including a man diagnosed with breast cancer (a great cameo by Jeffrey Tambor). Of the five, it’s the best example of laughter through tears.
“Pearl” wraps up the project, not by tying loose ends together but by eloquently and poignantly bringing closure. Director Patty Jenkins uses myriad shots looking through the windows of Pearl’s life — a fly-on-the-glass approach that is surprisingly personal.
If there’s a message to be brought home here, it’s that until a cure is found, there will always be stories like these to tell.