Five Feet Apart (2019)
When Life Keeps You Apart, Fight For Every Inch.
There’s been a bit of an explosion of terminal romance films of late — from the time-honored American classic Love Story, dating all the way back to 1970, to Mandy Moore’s more recent A Walk to Remember (2002), and who can forget 2014’s life-affirming YA weepie The Fault in Our Stars. The most recent entry into the ‘sick-lit’ subgenre is Five Feet Apart, which, though aimed squarely at Fault’s young-adult demographic — exploring teen-centered topics of love and depression — isn’t based on any pre-existing IP; rather, the film takes its cues from the ‘six-foot rule’ IPC guideline, outlined by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, stating that anyone diagnosed with CF should stay at least six feet away from one another at all times, minimizing the risk of cross-infection. A novelization of Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis’ script does, however, exist (already a New York Times bestseller), with both the novel, written by Rachael Lippincott, and the film green-lit at round about the same time.
The movie opens in what seems to be a typical teenaged girl’s bedroom — it’s warmly lit and welcoming, decked out with posters and lights and whatever else you’d expect to find in an adolescent’s bedchamber. There we meet cheery seventeen-year-old Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson), who seems to be prepping for a night out with her gal pals. We very quickly learn, however, that Stella is, in fact, a patient at the Saint Grace Hospital (and has been for the better part of ten years), bidding her friends farewell as she’s left all alone in a cold, clinical and sterile space. Stella, as it turns out, has cystic fibrosis (a genetic disorder that affects the lungs) and is a bit of a social media junkie, using technology to cope with her illness. Stella is big on Vlogging, making bravely honest YouTube videos that discuss/ educate others on what it’s like to live with CF; moviemakers use snippets of her recordings to bring us up to speed on the life-threatening sickness — call it Cystic Fibrosis 101.
Stella is also ‘clinically OCD,’ partaking in a drug trial that could potentially prolong her life, and sticks to a fairly regimented medication schedule. One can say that she lives for her treatments rather than doing her treatments so that she can live. Be that as it may, she’s made herself quite comfy at the medical institution, with her childhood best bud, fellow CF patient Poe (Moisés Arias), housed only a few doors down, having also befriended hard-line head nurse Barbra (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who monitors the teens.
Things change, though, when Stella one day bumps into the tall, dark and handsome free-spirited artist Will Newman (Riverdale heartthrob Cole Sprouse), learning that he’ll be staying at the clinic too, being a CF’er suffering from B. cepacia, a bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which, if not treated properly, can swiftly lead to lung function decline — pretty serious stuff. Will, being a ‘glass half empty’ kinda guy, is eventually compelled by Stella, who’s more of a ‘glass half full’ kinda gal, to drop his devil-may-care attitude when it comes to his treatment, agreeing to take his routine more seriously if he’s allowed to sketch her.
Although Will’s morbid worldview and Stella’s steady optimism initially causes the two to butt heads, the time they spend together, webcamming while downing their meds and sneaking out late at night to go on steamy ‘rest home’ dates, enable them to become friends, well more than just friends, their frisky flirtation soon becoming the real deal, genuine love and affection — as relationships go, theirs is very much a case of opposites attract. Despite pleas from Nurse Barb, urging the couple to remain at a distance, Stella dictates a new five-foot rule of separation (using a pool cue), insisting that she take something back (in this case, one foot) from the terminal illness that has robbed her from living a complete life, which her older sister Abby (Sophia Bernard) does, enjoying a wild, carefree lifestyle in order to make up for Stella’s lost experiences.
As far as ‘sick teen’ flicks go, Five Feet Apart is just as heartwrenching and heartwarming as one would expect (so bring tissues), but probably leans into its subgenre clichés more often than it should — the soundtrack seems to feature every indie rock title that cites medicine or disease, to tasteful effect, though. With that said, given that this is the feature-film directorial debut for Justin Baldoni — best known for his acting work in The CW’s Jane the Virgin (2014) — Five Feet Apart boasts the right mix of sad and sweet, and for a story primarily based in a bleak and bland environment (a hospital), it remains surprisingly engrossing, following our sickly in love teens as they try to battle cross-contamination; although, clocking in at nearly two hours, it almost outstays its welcome.
What stands out is the screenplay, written by relatively untested scribes Daughtry and Iaconis — who pen the soon-to-be-released The Curse of La Llorona (2019) — and its observations on living with CF. Sure, a lot’s been romanticized to amp up the drama, but the film manages to stays true to the strict treatment mechanisms of battling with cystic fibrosis, spotlighting how this deadly disease impacts both the lives of the CF sufferer and the loved ones around them; the late Claire Wineland (founder of the non-profit organization Claire’s Place Foundation) worked closely with the cast and crew as a consultant, ensuring that the film accurately depict the day-to-day challenges of living with CF, the 21-year-old cystic fibrosis victim tragically losing her life shortly after (in September of 2018).
And, of course, the theme of human touch is ever-present, with Five Feet Apart exploring our inherent need for physical connection. There are some nice little moments sprinkled throughout, reminding us that CF’ers need to look at the world through a different lens, forced to find pleasure in the smaller, simpler things — a sad reality for these unfortunate folk. And minus some mawkish, hackneyed dialogue (this is, after all, a YA tear-jerker), the able-bodied cast do a stellar job in rendering the emotional highs and lows of our key players.
In a real star-making turn, Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen (2016), gives a nuanced, vanity-free portrayal as Stella, coming off as your kindly girl next door type — she’s wonderful here and really anchors the drama. Similarly, the dreamy Will Newman is admirably played by Cole Sprouse, his rule-breaking bad-boy certain to break the hearts of many female patrons (hormonal girls in particular). And if it weren’t for the authentic, palpable chemistry between stars Sprouse and Lu Richardson, the romance wouldn’t work (or work as well as it does); a scene the pair share at a swimming pool really sticks out, being tender, touching and heartbreaking all at the one time. Support players are just as stable, injecting comedy and pathos into the proceedings, fulfilling the requirements of their roles effectively; there’s Moisés Arias’ Poe, who, having accepted his ill fate, has difficulty letting others in (romantically), and Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s chief nurse, who gets her own mournful backstory to justify her rigid, often unsympathetic actions.
As another film based on real-life husband-and-wife Katie Donovan and Dalton Prager, who, back in 2009, met as teenagers on a Facebook page for those battling with cystic fibrosis — the pair also being the inspiration for John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars — Five Feet Apart succeeds as a charmingly crafted sob-story that’s well developed and agreeably executed, the picture bringing our attention, once again, to a chronic disorder many still aren’t aware of — and I guess any awareness, be it positive or negative, is good. Although some have criticized the flick for its misinterpretation of CF (think disease-appropriation), using it to frame a ‘forbidden love’ narrative, Five Feet Apart doesn’t pity its main players; rather, it uses them to comment on sacrifice and selfless love — and to me, that ain’t so bad.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner