While some people push back on these things (and I understand why), movie history has shown there is an audience for teen illness flicks. I find it hard to be dismissive of them. They can serve to enlighten people as well as speak to those who have experienced the diseases or know someone who has. At the same time there is a thin line between informing and exploiting.
“Five Feet Apart” walks that thin line at times leaning precariously towards the exploitative. But thankfully the film never falls over to that side mainly due to a deeply serious approach to cystic fibrosis as well as an authentic and fiercely committed performance from Haley Lu Richardson.
Richardson plays Stella who is back in the hospital for another series of treatments. She’s sprightly OCD and admits to having control issues, but she remains positive sometimes above what her health seems to allow. She documents her journey with CF through her YouTube blog called “My Daily Breath”. It helps her cope as well as share her experience.
Down the hall is a childhood friend and fellow CF patient Poe (Moises Arias in a tempered down gay sidekick role). Oh, and there’s the new guy, the hunky and brooding Will (Cole Sprouse) who’s channeling as much early Johnny Depp as he can muster. He’s there for an experimental drug trial. While Stella and Will may share the same disease, otherwise they couldn’t be more opposite. Of course that changes and a mutual attraction begins.
From there the movie operates under the same rules as most of these things do – a bittersweet romance, the looming threat of disease-related death, and a bathtub filled to the rim with tears. The tension here is that Stella and Will must remain six feet apart to keep from sharing potentially fatal bacteria. As their relationship intensifies so does the longing to be closer. But their heartbreaking reality is the real antagonist of the film.
In his feature film debut director Justin Baldoni gets several things right. Teen romances can be hard to digest but his is easy to buy into. It forms and grows naturally despite a few missteps by the script. And Baldoni definitely sells the setting. Practically the entire film takes place in a hospital ward and a lot of detail is put into making it as realistic as possible.
It’s the final 15 minutes that sees the movie nosedive into melodramatic overkill. It’s as if the filmmakers lost faith in both their story and their storytelling and turned to a sappy Nicholas Sparks-ish ending. It still gets to you and your eyes are sure to well up. But unlike earlier in the film, I could feel the tug of manipulation throughout the final leg.
A part of me really appreciates the sheer education value of “Five Feet Apart”. It drops a ton of information and provides an earnest depiction of cystic fibrosis which can be eye-opening for people like me. It’s also great that it offers another opportunity for Haley Lu Richardson to show why she’s one of the best young actresses working today. But that ending. It doesn’t quite kill the good that comes before it, but it comes mighty close.
VERDICT – 3 STARS