What Five Feet Apart has going for it is Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse. And that’s no small thing. The Riverdale star and Support The Girls scene-stealer are two of the most appealing young actors working at the moment, with Richardson in particular emerging as one of the sharpest talents of her generation. As two hospital-bound patients caught up in a star-crossed love affair, they pulsate with the magnetism of generation-defining onscreen teen couples, from Winona Ryder and Christian Slater to Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger to Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort (the pair they’re most consciously trying to emulate). For the first half of the movie, that’s enough to make up for the weak dialogue, inelegant plotting, and thin characterization of Five Feet Apart. In the end, however, even Richardson and Sprouse can’t fully overcome the clumsy mawkishness around them.
Five Feet Apart is the latest attempt to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of John Green’s bestselling novel–turned–hit movie The Fault In Our Stars. (Five Feet Apart isn’t based on a novel, although it has since been turned into one ahead of the film’s release.) Instead of cancer, Five Feet Apart centers on the rarer condition of cystic fibrosis—or CF as it’s colloquially known—a genetic disorder that affects the lungs in life-threatening ways. As teen patient Stella (Richardson) explains in one of the lively YouTube videos she uploads to educate people about her disease, the goal of many CF patients is simply to hang on as long as possible in hopes that new treatments will be developed. A proactive pragmatist with clinical OCD, Stella is currently waiting for a lung transplant that could buy her at least five more healthy years. But new lungs aren’t an option for rebellious, cynical Will (Sprouse), who has a more aggressive condition and is enrolled in a clinical drug trial he can barely be bothered to follow.
The film’s over-plotting starts early, as Stella’s fixation on order leads her to take charge of Will’s treatment plan, inevitably turning their frictional dynamic into a budding romance. Ironically, however, the thing that brings Stella and Will together is also the thing that keeps them apart. To reduce the high risk of cross-contamination, CF patients are required to stay at least six feet away from each other at all times. (They can touch people without CF, just not each other.) So Stella and Will have to figure out how to get emotionally close while staying physically separated, which mostly results in a series of increasingly elaborate romantic gestures for which the film seems to have an endless threshold.
Thankfully, spending the past five years playing a romantic leading man on Jane The Virgin has given debut feature director Justin Baldoni a keen eye for capturing lush romantic imagery, particularly once Stella and Will “reclaim one foot” and start roaming the hospital on either end of a five-foot pool cue as an indirect way to hold hands. Working with All Is Lost cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, Baldoni fills his film with beautifully symmetrical images that place Sprouse and Richardson on the far ends of the screen, making the distance between them as much the focus of a shot as they are. As Stella and Will’s love story deepens, however, Baldoni struggles to effectively build either dramatic or sexual tension. He’s more comfortable with twee romance than the maddening sense of physical longing around which the film is ostensibly centered. It doesn’t help that the script by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (based on Baldoni’s original idea) can’t quite figure out what to actually do with its compelling “lovers who can’t touch” premise.
That’s where Richardson and Sprouse step in to save the day. There’s no cliché the two can’t elevate through the sheer force of their combined charisma. His masterful deployment of dewy-eyed lovelorn looks pairs perfectly with the depth of her dramatic skills. Along with Moisés Arias as another young CF patient, the trio capture the old-soul energies of adolescents trapped between the impulses of teenage life and the responsibilities of adulthood. Costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin also does fantastic work giving the film’s young cast a chicly disheveled aesthetic that feels fashionably of-the-moment, while still rooted in their unique experience as teens who have essentially turned their extended hospital stays into a college dorm experience.
Unfortunately, welcome insight into the physical and emotional experience of living with cystic fibrosis eventually gives way to increasingly improbable romantic and dramatic scenarios. (For a film about severely ill kids, Five Feet Apart bizarrely makes parents nonentities.) By its third act, the film almost starts to feel like a parody of the most maudlin conventions of the “sick teen romance” genre. That includes the misstep of pivoting to a broadly inspirational message about how people with CF can inspire the rest of us not to take our lives—or our ability to touch—for granted. Given that Stella and Will communicate via screens as much as they do in person, there are certainly parallels to be drawn between the isolation of “CF-ers” and a broader sense of 21st-century isolation. It’s still a shame to see the film trade the specificity of a CF-centric story for generic teen romance.