Because I’m cynical and older than the target audience, I went into Five Feet Apart expecting to have to carefully write this review. It’s one thing if the movie is actually atrocious and it’s obvious to all (so not Twilight, but maybe some of its fantasy romance knock-offs), but if it’s a passable piece of media that just isn’t for me, it’s not my place to tear it down unnecessarily. And given that The Fault in Our Stars really didn’t sit well with me, I struggled with how I would approach my dislike of the dying-kid-romance genre without it being unnecessarily negative to the film.
Well, that was all a waste of time, because somehow, despite a somewhat cliched plot and pacing issues, Five Feet Apart manages to be charming.
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is a cystic fibrosis patient, confined to a hospital and kept placated by her obsession with routine and regimen. She has a friend in the hospital, Poe (Moises Arias), but because patients with CF can have vastly different bacteria cultures (the mixing of which can be fatal), CF patients are required to remain six feet apart in order to prevent from catching each other’s bacteria. If you can’t tell already, this is a very medical film, and if you’re not good with seeing fluids, blood, or wounds, this probably isn’t the movie for you.
When Will (Cole Sprouse) shows up, his lackadaisical attitude towards his health and condition infuriate Stella. But as she begins forcing him to follow his regimen, they end up spending a lot of time together, in person from a distance, and over laptop screens. And of course, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that in this teen romance movie, the teens do indeed fall in love.
Putting my cynicism back on for a moment, there’s a lot that could have gone wrong here. The director, Justin Baldoni, is most known for directing television. The opening logos of Lionsgate and CBS Films did not inspire confidence. And, like all teen romances these days, it’s based off a book that probably went a lot deeper into the inner thoughts and feelings of characters — most of which would be difficult to translate to the screen.
But the film works because of Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse. These films are often characterized by how teenagers sound middle-aged, a hallmark of the screenwriters not knowing how to write teenagers. In this case, the grave subject matter makes philosophical conversations from teenagers a bit more appropriate — but without the right actors to handle it, this very easily could have been hammy. Richardson brings her character’s manic attention to detail to life in a thoughtful manner — she isn’t a caricature, she’s flawed. And Sprouse’s dry delivery of gallows humor and his physical comedy bring Will to life.
Their performances are authentic, so much so that I found myself angry with their choices as the film progressed. Not angry with the choices of the script — angry with the choices of the characters. Because I wanted to see them succeed against their long odds. Not something I expected when I went in.
There’s a lot of expected moments in a drama of this nature, and this film hits them. The caution, the sneaking, the romance, the fear when something unexpected happens. You’re not going to find this film breaks new story ground. The film is shot largely like a TV show, which makes sense given the people involved in the production, and there’s probably a good ten or fifteen minutes that could have been cut since the midsection of the film drags a bit. But it’s an engaging story brought to life by great performances, which is really the most important thing.
I will just say though, if you are a filmmaker planning on shooting a big, romantic scene that hinges on soft focus and a lot of lights, you MIGHT want to make sure your lenses and sensors are clean because the bokeh effect captures the shape of the lens and magnifies the junk you’ve got on it. I’m sure most of the audience who has no clue about lenses didn’t care and was too busy caught in the romance of the moment, but all I could see was the dirt that the cinematographer and AC didn’t clear off the lens before the shot.
Old habits die hard I guess.
Five Feet Apart is a sweet story, and if romances are your thing, it’s definitely for you.