Five Feet Apart applies heavy-duty emotions to a story that informs and entertains audiences on a topic that could use more attention.
Optimistic and full of life, Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is a young girl who is living temporarily at the hospital in order to receive further treatments for cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease she’s had since she was a child. She creates her own world in her hospital room — decorating it with art and photos to make it feel like home.
As a result of her clinical OCD, she arranges her pills in color-coded boxes and makes a daily to-do list, designs and codes an app for her routine, and live streams her sessions at the hospital as she awaits a lung transplant. She befriends everyone at the hospital, including fellow patient Poe (Moises Arias).
Then charming and brooding Will (Cole Sprouse) arrives at the hospital. He has already armed himself against any hope, believing cystic fibrosis patients, including himself, are breathing borrowed air. His lack of interest in the treatment and his devil-may-care attitude drive Stella insane. So she offers to help him and as romance flicks go, they are thrown together.
Because Will is a fellow “CFer” (as they like to call themselves), they have to adhere to the “six-foot rule” to avoid cross-contamination. Will is also infected with the dangerous bacteria B. cepacia, which makes it even more critical that he stay away from Stella. The reason the film is called Five Feet Apart is explained later.
Justin Baldoni, known for his portrayal of Rafael on the hit TV series Jane the Virgin, makes his directorial debut with Five Feet Apart. He uses smart tactics such as Stella’s live streaming to inform her viewers, as well as the audience, about the genetic disease. He’s layered the film with a message that’s clearly close to his heart — it’s based on the story of his late friend, Claire Wineland. The movie instills hope and gently reminds us we should all live life to the fullest.
Haley breathes life into her character. Her Stella is real and raw, an optimistic girl with many reasons for living. She gives the film a pulse, making it easy to relate to her character. Haley has a gift for making her characters believable, imperfect and human. And for that, she is a young actor to watch.
Cole Sprouse is charming as Will — if you’ve seen him play Jughead on Riverdale, the character he plays in this movie is even more brooding and more charming. He plays a teen hero with ease and a winning smile. If only his extremely soft hair didn’t fall over his eye in every scene and distract us.
The film doesn’t romanticize the illness, but does educate audiences. However, the often-used “hospitalized teen romance” formula is applied: two drastic personalities are brought together by shared circumstances; a tragic past; a gay best friend; and clichéd dialogue — all as we patiently wonder what fate awaits this couple. I usually enjoy this type of film, and this one definitely had its moments, but as it neared its conclusion, it just missed the mark.
That being said, this is the first film to feature cystic fibrosis — it was certainly very informative and creates awareness about a disease that is often under the radar. You can tell this film is made with integrity and heart. It opens up a conversation, and asks: instead of living for the treatment, how about using the treatment to live?
For that, for Haley, and maybe for some screen time with undeniably charming Cole-ness, I give this film three out of five stars. ~Marriska Fernandes
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