Most teen romances rely on delayed gratification to keep viewers enthralled: Will they fall in love? Will they kiss? Will they have sex? Take Twilight, which kept us longing for a Bella/Edward kiss for a whole hour and fifteen minutes, and then held off on a sex scene for three whole movies after that. The sweet agony of that build-up without full release is part of the appeal — after all, that’s kind of what it feels like to be young and in love.
Five Feet Apart follows in the “sick-lit” adaptation footsteps of The Fault In Our Stars’. It’s based on a novel by Rachael Lippincott, which was published just a few months ago in November 2018; screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis also contributed to the book’s original story, which was written in tandem with the film. Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) are both living with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease affecting the lungs that limits the ability to breathe, and shortens life expectancy significantly.
It turns out that people living with CF aren’t supposed to come within six feet (yes, you read right, Will and Stella decide to reclaim a foot, thus Five Feet Apart) of each other, for fear of passing on dangerous bacteria that might be fatal to the other. These two can’t even touch, let alone hold hands, or kiss. Just standing too close to each other could mean a painful and terrifying death. As a result, Five Feet Apart relies even further on its actors — if their chemistry’s a bust, then there’s nothing to root for. Luckily, director Justin Baldoni (Rafael Solano from Jane the Virgin, in his feature directorial debut) has the charismatic Richardson and Sprouse to carry a melodrama so emotionally manipulative that you can’t help but be impressed when it elicits the very reactions you’re trying to resist.
There’s a formula to films that revolve around love and illness: rebel boy falls for smart girl who makes him realize that there’s no shame in embracing his potential. You’ve seen it in films from Love Story to A Walk To Remember, and Five Feet Apart falls neatly into that narrative. Stella and Will start off at odds, but are progressively drawn towards each other, in part because they know it’s forbidden.
Richardson is one of the few performers who can sell genuine good humor. As Stella, she exudes the kind of cheer and optimism that might come off as manufactured charm from any other actress. Still, you can feel the clouds looming over this sunny disposition. Her obsessive compulsive disorder manifests itself in the way she has to organize her meds, and keep track of everyone else’s treatments. What’s more, she’s known loss, and has been living with a serious illness for years. But instead of letting it get her down, she’s channelled that energy into helping others — via a Youtube channel that brings awareness of the realities of living with CF. (In fact, Baldoni got the idea for the film after meeting the late Claire Wineland, a Youtuber with CF who appeared in his CW documentary, My Last Days.)
Will, on the other hand, is the rebel. (We know this because of his uniform of sweatpants and combat boots, and because he’s a cartoonist.) Having been diagnosed with B. cepacia, a bacteria that’s particularly dangerous for people awaiting lung transplants, he’s all but given up on his treatments, and just wants to live what’s left of his life. Sprouse has already shown us that he can rock a bad boy as Jughead on Riverdale, but he also has that spark of leading man sweetness that really makes you believe that once he falls, it’s with an all-consuming passion. Swoon.
There’s sure to be controversy surrounding the film’s release. It’s already been criticized by some CF advocates warning of its inaccurate portrayal of protocols associated with the disease, and for its very premise, which possibly fetishizes terminal illness. I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy, but I will say that as someone with almost no prior knowledge of CF, I did come away with some awareness — albeit basic — and empathy for those living with the condition. As for the fetishization issue, it’s a trap that all films of this sub-genre risk, but one I think Five Feet Apart side-steps rather successfully. (I won’t give away how, as that would spoil it.)
What I found much harder to swallow is that, for a film that revolves around healthcare, Five Feet Apart is remarkably agile at avoiding its more difficult aspects. The hospital where these three teens stay is state-of-the-art and downright luxurious — there’s a meditation room, a gym, a lovely pool, and they each have their own, tastefully decorated rooms. And money is referred to exactly once, and by Poe, the only character of color, when he questions how his parents will be able to pay for his treatments once he ages out of insurance coverage. There’s a mountain of unchecked privilege that one must ignored in order to focus on the burgeoning love between the protagonists.
Five Feet Apart certainly made me cry. A lot. But it also made me laugh, and not always on purpose. There’s one would-be sexy scene in particular, involving a pool cue and bare skin that elicit full-throated chuckles in the screening room. And yet, it’s followed by a genuinely moving and intimate moment between the star-crossed protagonists that evokes a similar scene from The Notebook. It’s predictable, and over the top, but you kind of knew that going in.