Of all the devices storytellers use to keep fated lovers apart—warring families and existing entanglements being perhaps the most popular—making them both so immunocompromised that the simple act of swapping spit in a make out session is sure to kill them, seems a touch cynical. Add to that an over-reliance on romantic movie tropes (she’s a type-A girl with a gay best friend and he’s the brooding James Dean of the ICU) and the new teen weeper Five Feet Apart is full of red flags or, to quote its own parlance, code blues.
So why, despite all of this, does this movie work to a greater degree than it doesn’t?
The credit largely goes to lead actor Haley Lu Richardson, who builds on a remarkable cinematic resume that includes 2017’s Columbus and last year’s Support the Girls, with an emotionally adroit performance that never hits a false moment, even when the film itself does. She plays Stella, a young woman who tries to find some semblance of control in a world where her family is crumbling around her and her lungs and other organs are filling with thick mucus thanks to cystic fibrosis. The Edge of Seventeen actress is able to simultaneously convey the wisdom of a person who has spent her life with the knowledge that every breath may be her last and the immaturity of someone whose circumstance has made hers a life only half lived. It is a remarkable performance in a film that required her Herculean effort to resonate at all.
Then there is her fella. It is difficult to convey just how swoony Riverdale star and former Disney Channel mainstay Cole Sprouse is in this movie. As Will, a fellow “CFer” who lurks about the hospital with his sketchbook tucked under his arm, wears a long scarf and combat boots, and makes such utterances as “The soul knows no time,” he is the Platonic ideal of an art school hottie. Sprouse, who along with his twin brother, Dylan, has been acting since he was still in diapers, has an easy, unforced charisma that gracefully balances Richardson’s Jiffy Pop ebullience.
FIVE FEET APART ★★1/2
Both actors are aided by a small but strong supporting cast that features a deeply humane performance by Sprouse’s fellow The Suite Life with Zach and Cody refugee Moises Arias as Po, a first-generation American who frets about how he will pay for treatment once he turns 21. (Could it be that the other cloying shows we have been begging our tweens to stop streaming are the Playhouse 90 of our time?)
The care that the actors and filmmakers take to show the complex health regimens that young people with cystic fibrosis navigate on a daily basis (roughly 70 thousand people worldwide have the genetic disease) is moving and gives the film an emotional through line that is as palpable as its romantic one. Director Justin Baldoni—he plays the love interest on CW’s Jane the Virgin and created the created the end-of-life digital documentary series My Last Days—employs a handheld camera and lots of close-ups; the technique conveys both a sense of intimacy and probing curiosity.
Unfortunately, like most hospital stays, Five Feet Apart goes on longer than you want it to. It reaches an overly dramatic climax that occurs far from the hospital confines and even further from the tone of the rest of the film. It’s as if, for the last quarter, the film loses sight of what made it singular—the way long-term patients build meaningful homes for themselves inside the sterile environment of a hospital—and becomes something entirely more generic.
Even then, the honesty of the actors and their commitment to each other bails the movie out. They manage to find truth in a highly manipulative situation, and that’s something even the least stardust-sprinkled among us can appreciate.