The doomed teen romance has been having a moment since 2014, with the release of the film adaptation of the John Green bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars. Since then, we’ve had similar films attempt to reach that kind of lightning-in-a-bottle financial success, with decidedly lesser results. Five Feet Apart is the latest in the sick-kid-doomed-teen-romance subgenre, and it’s a mixed bag.
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is a teenage cystic fibrosis patient whose life has been defined by her illness. In her most recent stint in the hospital, she meet-cutes with Will (Cole Sprouse), a fellow CF patient with whom she sparks an unlikely friendship. They bicker and they flirt and they can’t get within six feet of each other, as that would put the two at the potentially fatal risk of cross-infection. And the film’s thesis statement is, essentially, how can you love someone at a distance?
This film is riddled with clichés, and has a million problems, and yet it somehow almost works in the end. Richardson is gifted with the more meaty performance, and she continues to prove herself to be a versatile and very promising actress, after her performance in last year’s underrated Support the Girls. Cole Sprouse is also very talented, but he’s basically playing the male version of the manic-pixie-dream-girl archetype, and there really isn’t much more to him. He’s the sensitive bad boy with a heart of gold. I appreciated that Richardson actually looked like a sick person for the majority of the runtime, but I can’t quite say the same for Sprouse, who only occasionally looks like a person who has a minor cold.
Moises Arias plays Poe, Stella’s friend who is also a CF patient who has been there for it all. His involvement in this story is regressive. He’s the gay sidekick who has a snippy answer for everything, but his own life is kind of beside the point. Kimberly Hebert Gregory plays Barb, a concerned nurse who has been down this road before when two starry-eyed teen CF patients fell in love and died under her watch. Her performance, like Arias’, would be quite good if it weren’t clichéd and borderline offensive. The parents of either character are barely in the story, for reasons that become more clear as it goes on.
Jane the Virgin actor Justin Baldoni competently directs the film, although there isn’t a lot to distinguish it from any other YA doomed romance saga. It doesn’t try anything fresh and it doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen done better elsewhere. It has a tone and cinematic vibe that basically plays like a Hallmark Channel movie. The script by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis embraces the aspects about it that make it the opposite of special, instead of embracing what could separate it from the pack. Cystic fibrosis is an illness that could use a voice in a piece of mainstream media like this, that could lead to more funding and better research to lead to a better outlook for its patients, but here it’s simply a template for watching two attractive young people fall in love with each other.
There are plenty of things wrong with Five Feet Apart, but it must be doing something right. During the big tearjerker finale, I could hear loud, exaggerated sobs all around me in the theater. It didn’t get to me, and perhaps I have a heart of stone, but these movies have reduced me to mush before. To its credit, the ending is not as safe and clean as it could be, and in the end, it almost works and the mostly teenage audience will get their swooning and sobbing in. It could be less clichéd and more incisive and truthful about the serious topic that surrounds it, but the audience this movie is made for will have gotten their money’s worth. All others need not apply.