Jeanne Tripplehorn stars as an oncologist and breast cancer survivor in FIVE.

 

Last night, I watched the original Lifetime movie FIVE.

Knowing I was going to write about it, I did some homework beforehand, and so expected five short films, each focused on an individual woman’s experience with breast cancer. I expected powerful performances by well-respected actresses. I expected sensitive subject matter, presented with respect and gravitas by earnest celebrity directors.

What I didn’t expect was to be quite so moved. And I certainly didn’t expect to laugh.

Breast cancer is serious business. As FIVE reminds us, one in eight women will be diagnosed with this disease during her lifetime, and the other seven will likely be touched by it in some way by middle age. For myself, I count a dear friend, an aunt, a cousin, an in-law, and a boss’s wife, plus my own irregular mammogram scares and loved ones’ precancerous results. It’s as if breast cancer is circling, invading our lives peripherally until it invades our bodies literally.

This is why I believe the creators of FIVE made a courageous decision to include dark but intelligent humor. From a little girl catching her aunt stealing from her dying mother’s jewelry box, to a stripper who faces losing her breasts and her livelihood, to a mad-as-hell stage four patient who holds a mock funeral and interrupts her friends’ eulogies to get things off “what’s left of my chest.” These moments provide some of the film’s sharpest writing and best entertainment, and help us to see each patient as a whole, individual woman.

The first film, “Charlotte,” set in 1969, provides two important pieces of the larger project: background on how society used to handle cancer, and a backstory for the oncologist who becomes the link between the other four portraits. An extended family has gathered to watch the historic first moonwalk while Charlotte (Ginnifer Goodwin) lies dying in the next room. Her young daughter, Pearl, doesn’t understand the whispering, her father’s drinking, why she can’t see her mother. It is shot believably and with great tenderness from her perspective, and I found myself at once heartbroken for Pearl and grateful that medicine and palliative and hospice care have come so far.

The next story, “Cheyanne,” focuses on a young exotic dancer (Lyndsy Fonseca) and poignantly explores how breast cancer attacks a woman’s identity and sexuality. It also painfully dramatizes the fact that the young and the beautiful are not exempt. In a sweet, O’Henry-esque twist, Cheyanne’s husband shaves off his gorgeous hair in an act of loving solidarity.

In story number three, “Lili,” (directed by singer Alicia Keys), an independent young lawyer (Rosario Dawson) wants to handle her breast cancer diagnosis as she handles the rest of her life — on her own. Her overbearing mother and guilt-ridden older sister refuse to comply, and force Lili to face not only her cancer fears but her fear of needing her family.

Mia,” directed by Jennifer Aniston (also one of the movie’s executive producers), traces a cancer survivor’s history in reverse, from her triumphant second-chance marriage, to her unexpected remission, her grueling treatment, and her devastating diagnosis. Patricia Clarkson’s powerful performance conveys the fullest range of emotions that a cancer patient might experience. From denial and anger to bitterness to relief, and eventually the joy that comes with total freedom.

The final chapter in FIVE brings us full circle. In this segment, grownup Pearl (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the oncologist who has treated all the other patients, must face her own diagnosis. With the help of her supportive husband, Pearl finds the courage to give her daughter what she herself was denied years before: truth and hope.

It’s hard to admit to “enjoying” a movie about breast cancer, but I did. My only major criticism is the inappropriate emphasis on product placement. The movie is sponsored by Walgreens, Ford, and Yoplait — each of which is admirably committed to funding breast cancer awareness, treatment, and research. However, a boundary is crossed when Lili’s mother waltzes into the cancer center’s waiting room and proudly displays her new scarf and travel mug. “Warriors in Pink! You can get ‘em online!” she announces. “Warriors in Pink! It represents the powerful and the courageous who are fighting breast cancer.” Lili is appalled and, to be honest, I was taken aback too.

The product placement becomes even more preachy and obtuse in the final segment. In voiceover, Pearl explains that breast cancer touches everyone and everyone has a story to tell. “This woman just picked up a prescription at Walgreens; the bottle’s pink cap will remind her to get a mammogram which will end up saving her life.” The pièce de résistance? A shot of the woman’s Walgreen’s shopping bag. I was surprised and disappointed. The subject, writers, directors, actors —and the movie itself — deserve better.

I was sorry to find fault with such an honorable undertaking. FIVE is a powerful production that stays with you on many levels. Last night, I watched the original Lifetime movie FIVE. This morning, I scheduled my mammogram.

(FIVE will air several more times on the Lifetime channel, and also can be viewed online. — Ed.)

 

 

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  • Janis Greve December 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks for this thorough review, Alexandra, which was a pleasure to read. I was planning to watch it with my husband, but we forgot! I’m glad, though, that I can find it on-line. I would have watched the show with a critical eye and a well-honed schmaltz-detector (I’m two years out from stage 3 breast cancer.) It doesn’t sound like there was too much pink in this show at all. I’m putting it on my to-do list.

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