Did you know October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and National Cybersecurity Awareness Month and National Substance Abuse Prevention Month? Probably not. But I’ll bet you knew that the current page of the calendar is associated with breast cancer awareness, a cause that actress Jennifer Aniston is helping call attention to with her new Lifetime feature Five.
I went to the Washington, D.C., premiere of Five on Monday with my friend Lindsey. Both of our mothers were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past year, so I wanted her perspective on the film, which tells the story of the battle against breast cancer through the lives and relationships of women who are diagnosed with it.
Regardless of its artistic success or failure, the film adds to the bombardment of the American public with Breast Cancer Awareness. There’s nothing wrong with raising awareness of breast cancer, of course, and, certainly, bombardment is the aim. But it has been noted that this particular public campaign may numb people to a message they hear too often, and resign some people to thinking, “Hey, if everyone right down to the cast of Friends is already dealing with breast cancer, they really don’t need my help.”
In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 96% of respondents agreed that breast cancer awareness events, with their ubiquitous pink banners, have made people more aware of the disease. But one in three respondents also felt that “the intense focus on breast cancer overshadows other worthy causes.” (Note: the No. 1 killer of women? Not breast cancer, but heart disease.)
USA Today further highlighted the frustration among breast-cancer survivors with the “commercialization” of breast cancer. (Walgreens, for its part as a sponsor of the Lifetime project, gets a rather awkward shout-out in Five.)
Five certainly succeeds in being a showcase exclusively for the ladies: the feature is a collection of five short films about an affliction that affects one in eight women, directed by five different women and starring even more women — to be broadcast on a cable channel that targets women.
Jennifer Aniston is the executive producer and director of one of the shorts, called “Mia.” Demi Moore, Alicia Keys, Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) and Patty Jenkins (Monster) directed the others. The only recurring actress is Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love), who serves as the common thread that ties the films together.
The life of Tripplehorn’s character, Pearl, is essentially defined by breast cancer: her mother has it, so she becomes an oncologist (and treats the other characters), and then she gets it. (Her character’s name hints at how she tries to turn her strife into something productive, and occasionally beautiful.)
The problem with informational message movies — Be aware of these facts about breast cancer! — is that they slip easily into PSA-land. They’re most effective when viewers forget that they’re being hammered by a message, but since such films’ goal is to convey as much serviceable information as possible, their stories often become stilted and have trouble maintaining viewers’ suspension of disbelief.
There are moments during Five when this happens, particularly in the shorts in which the characters haven’t been developed very far beyond their disease. And there are plenty of cheesy moments, in the traditional style of made-for-TV movies. But there are also moments that portray the story of breast cancer, though it has been told and retold, as freshly emotive.
There are many of these moments in Aniston’s “Mia” — starring the show-stealing Patricia Clarkson and written by Wendy West — which uses humor deftly. When Pearl delivers the news to Mia that she has defied the odds and will be surviving Stage 4 breast cancer, Mia begins to weep. Pearl asks if they are tears of happiness. Mia’s answers ambivalently, sobbing that she had already given up everything, including her savings. “I drank a bottle of Cristal every day for a month!” she says.
After the film, I asked Lindsey for her take, figuring she’d agree about the cardboardness of some characters and how some of the best shorts were carried by their humor. She didn’t agree. Lindsey thought every one of the shorts worked. She said they each had made her cry, reminding her of a different aspect of the battle, whether it was the existential pain that breast cancer causes the patient or the struggle of being a child who suddenly becomes caretaker for a parent.
Later, I suspected that being drawn to the funny moments in Five was more personal than critical. Because my family, particularly my mother, dealt with her breast cancer through humor. She was diagnosed in October 2010. When she called to tell me, I tearfully pointed out — after the initial shock wore off — the irony of it being Breast Cancer Awareness month. With cheerful fatalism, she chirped, “Well, I’m certainly aware!”
When my dad told her that he couldn’t truly empathize with her loss, she said that wasn’t strictly true, teasing, “You’ve been ball-less for years.” (Lest my father sue me for slander, I will point out that she meant this figuratively.) And at one point she noted that anything else that was as useless as her breasts were at that point in her life would surely have been donated to Goodwill years ago.
Five will likely move many other survivors and people like Lindsey and me who have been touched by breast cancer. But that doesn’t mean the film will spread the message to those who aren’t already listening, or will inspire women to get a mammogram, or—on the other hand—that it will turn people off to yet more campaigning about breast cancer.
Still, let’s face it. If Jennifer Aniston gathered a bunch of celebrity friends to champion the cause of slicing bread, people would likely still pay attention. And even if the film does little more than offer catharsis to some of those who have been close to breast cancer, that’s a success in its own right.