Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, and Kimberly Hebert Gregory
Director: Justin Baldoni
Synopsis: Haley Lu Richardson stars as Stella, a teenager living with cystic fibrosis. Stella is focused on surviving, despite the toll this takes on her. However, when a new cystic fibrosis patient in the hospital, Will (Cole Sprouse), challenges Stella’s worldview, the two begin a forbidden romance– one where they must remain six feet apart at all times.
Justin Baldoni’s (of Jane the Virgin fame) directorial debut is another in the increasingly popular young adult genre known as “sick-lit,” joining Everything, Everything, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and, of course, The Fault in Our Stars.
Stella spends her days in the hospital, with a long and intensive daily routine dedicated to keeping her alive. She vlogs about her experience with cystic fibrosis (CF) and has been developing an app to help fellow sick kids with their own routines. When Will moves into the hospital, he and Stella begin to fall in love, despite the fact that they cannot ever touch. After a series of tragic events leads both characters to spiral and to cling to each other, their relationship and their lives are put in danger.
This film was plagued with problems, some deriving from the script, and others from the execution of the script. The dialogue was clunky and fake deep in the way teen movies tend to lean into, especially those that deal with death. Frequently, the adult writers were visible in the characters and plot, like when Stella snarkily psychoanalyzes Will within five seconds of meeting him, in order to provide insight into his character, and then later forgets any of the negative baggage she attributed to him so that she’ll think dating him is a good idea.
None of this is helped by the pacing of the film, which is about 30 minutes too long. Motifs and arcs are picked up and dropped at random. Throughout the entire first act, as the characters are inexplicably working together despite the fact that most of their relationship consists of rather mean-spirited exchanges, and they have known each other for a few days at most. This is where the parallels to Romeo and Juliet begin, as the entirety of the film takes place over three months. However, while the play is self-aware about the tragedy and folly of forbidden teen romance (and teen angst) Five Feet Apart is completely, utterly, self-indulgent and self-important. Constantly cutting between sickly sweet flirting and the often unpleasant, debilitating reality of life when one is constantly fighting their own body results in tonal whiplash which builds to a nauseatingly tension-filled climax that is more horror movie than young adult, yet is meant to seem beautifully romantic. In terms of technical skills, this movie is more a mixed bag. The cinematography and set decoration were very charming. Overall, the directing is mediocre, with the focus on melodrama and actors’ individual moments leaving the story on the whole weak and inconsistent.
The one actor that managed to (occasionally) rise above the material was Haley Lu Richardson, one of Hollywood’s rising stars. She gives an endearing performance as Stella, bringing warmth and levity while staying true to the tragic elements of the story. Unfortunately, Riverdale alum Cole Sprouse gave a thoroughly flat performance as a character who was essentially a mix of Augustus Waters and Timothee Chalamet’s character in Lady Bird. Moises Arias was a clear misstep as Poe, Stella’s gay and Latino best friend who also has CF. In a movie where none of the actors have any chemistry or appear to be the 17-year-olds they are portraying, Arias still sticks out with a bewildering and tokenizing performance.
Even with a few solid moments, Five Feet Apart is unbalanced, lackluster, and downright offensive.
A large aspect of this movie needs to be addressed: the depiction of illness. Obviously, the three main characters have cystic fibrosis, which is a chronic illness that impacts the lungs, as well as other organs. For many with CF, organ transplants are necessary, and living day-to-day is a struggle. While the quality of life for people with CF has greatly increased over the last few decades, it is still a difficult illness to live with, and incredibly isolating. Several CF activists have spoken out about issues they had with the portrayal of their illness in this film. As most audiences will not have experience with CF, it is important to hear the voices of the people this film hurt. Another illness Five Feet Apart includes is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as Stella describes herself as “clinically OCD”. This mainly manifests as a plot device, because Stella’s OCD makes her upset when other people do not follow her very precise cleanliness and CF management routine. Will does not follow the routine, and the two begin to bond when Stella forces them to do the daily routine together. The depiction of this disorder rang hollow and inaccurate, relying heavily on the idea that OCD is all about being “Type A” or perfectionist, and on the drama of panic attacks.
While there is usually something worth watching in every film, Five Feet Apart is an exception. It is difficult to justify spending two hours and 10 dollars watching this, especially when many of the people meant to be represented by the film are insulted by it. This film does not exist in a vacuum.
Even with a few solid moments, Five Feet Apart is unbalanced, lackluster, and downright offensive. Justice for (Nurse) Barb, who was literally just trying to keep the children she loves from killing each other with their love.