A film review by Craig J. Koban April 5, 2019


2019, PG-13, 116 mins.


Cole Sprouse as Will  /  Haley Lu Richardson as Stella  /  Moisés Arias as Poe  /  Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Nurse Barb  /  Parminder Nagra as Dr. Noor Hamid  /  Claire Forlani as Meredith

Directed by Justin Baldoni  /  Written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis




FIVE FEET APART is the kind of movie that polarized me more than any other that I've recently screened.  

Parts of me greatly admired its layered and authentically rendered performances.  Other parts of me loathed this film for how shamefully manipulative it was in using a particularly awful disease for the purposes of making a pretty paint-by-numbers and on genre autopilot teen romance drama.  

As I left the cinema after my screening I was stuck at an awkward fork in the road towards reviewing FIVE FEET APART: A lot of it worked for me thanks largely to the raw honesty brought to the table by its actors, but there were always those nagging sensations that this film is bogged down in an abundance of stale genre clichés, which doesn't make it all that much more special than other examples in a very crowded field. 

Oh, and the disease at the heart of this film is Cystic Fibrosis, an especially nasty one that's genetic and mostly affects the lungs because of an overabundance of mucus, thereby making it unbearably uncomfortable to breath and partake in most daily activities.  Also, since sufferers are highly susceptible to infections, they must remain at roughly two arms distance - or, to partially quote this film's title, five feet - apart from other CF patients in order reduce the possibility of cross infection.  Now, no one is denying how horrible life is for those afflicted with CF (literally every breath is indeed a Herculean struggle at times and the slightest infection to the lungs could prove fatal), and I think that FIVE FEET APART (some aspects of it, at least), are trying to draw attention to the pain and misery that it causes.  More often than not, though, there's an undeniable cheap sensationalism of CF at this film's core as well for the purposes of mechanically ringing tears out of viewer's eye sockets.  Yes, there have been good, tactful, and sincere YA films about people with diseases that have worked well (like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), but FIVE FEET APART takes too many outlandish and predictable narrative turns to be taken as seriously. 



But, I will say this in the film's defense: There's a genuine attempt here to craft an atypical romance film about two young people in love...that can't embrace and kiss, which opens up a whole other can of intriguing worms when it comes to the notions of shared intimacy - emotional and physical - in a relationship.  Imagine Romeo and Juliet not being able to come together because of fear of infecting one another with life altering and potentially death dealing bacteria and you kind of get the idea.  FIVE FEET APART introduces us to its Shakespearean star crossed and infected lovers early on in the form of Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson), who's been a long time sufferer of CF that spends most of her days confined to a hospital room receiving meds and treatments in hopes of extending her already short life a bit longer.  All things considered, she's relatively happy-go-lucky as far as CF afflicted people go, and even has a very active and animated YouTube channel that's dedicated to live streaming her treatments and giving educational details about how her life has changed because of her affliction.  Okay, it's not as fun as a Twitch channel streaming video games, but Stella makes her videos uniquely and engagingly her own. 

Her life changes forever, though, with the appearance of a moody, but hunky new patient in Will Newman (Cole Sprouse), another CF patient that is in the hospital just a few rooms down from her that's about to undergo a new experimental treatment to rid his body a truly horrible bacteria infection that just may cost him his life.  The prognosis for success is not in Will's favor, but the rebellious and throw caution to the wind teen doesn't seem too initially frazzled by it, seeing as he knows his days are limited and thusly has a penchant for engaging in a lot of rule breaking behavior.  Will's blatant hospital disobedience drives the by-the-book Stella crazy, which leads to her confronting him with help to ensure he stays on the right treatment track.  Rather predictably, as the pair spend more time together they grow more attracted to each other and unavoidably fall in love (not a spoiler), which is really, really inconvenient because - dammit! - they can't have sex, let alone hug and kiss. 

There's an emotional vulnerability at the heart of Will and Stella's union that makes FIVE FEET APART, in the early stages, quite involving and fascinating.  There's palpable sexual tension between them, with neither party willing to admit such feelings, but said tension is altogether different here because (a) both realize that their chances of living a long and fruitful life together is slim to none and (b) they simply can't be physically intimate.  That latter one is a major stumbling block, especially when it comes to lusting teenagers.  One little saliva exchange with even a modest kiss could spell doom.  This leads to some of FIVE FEET APART's better scenes showing the pair growing fonder and closer to one another by spiritually bonding.  But, yes, they sure would like to go beyond pontificating about life, death, and the great beyond.  One of the finest sequences in the film involves both taking a chance by going on an impromptu date in the hospital, but all while remaining at exactly one pool cue distance from one another (instead of holding hands, they hold the opposite ends of the cue between them).  Of course, this builds towards a sinful moment when both let their guards down and strip while at the hospital swimming pool, which might be the closest thing to intercourse they'll ever have together. 

Moments like this made FIVE FEET APART interesting to me for how much sympathy and understanding it has with its sick characters (plus, it forces the director Justin Baldoni to get creative when it comes to the usual obligatory romance elements of the meet-cute and ensuing courtship).  He also gets terrific performances from his two lead stars, with Sprouse in particular finding added hidden dimensions to his otherwise too-cool-for-school love interest that could have completely capsized with a lesser actor at the helm.  FIVE FEET APART is Richardson's film through and through, who gives a career best performance as her multi-layered CF patient that has to run a very tough emotional gambit in the film of being radiantly confident in one scene to being conflicted and frightened the next.  I find that the lovers in these types of YA dramas usually are not afforded all that much depth and nuance, but FIVE FEET APART gives us two characters with an atypical complexity that's refreshing. 

Unfortunately, for all of the great performance good will that Richardson and Sprouse bring collectively to the table there remains an overabundance of lame conventions that infects FIVE FEET APART and hurts its dramatic potency overall.  The opening two thirds are quite solid, but the final act of the film - which engages in some soap opera melodrama, achingly predictable obstacles, and one character beyond Will and Stella being introduced and exploited for no other purpose in the story than to propel and pressure the pair into crisis mode later on - is really hard to swallow.  Early on, FIVE FEET APART explores the simmering romance between two people that can never be together, but nevertheless find a way to be close, but as the film tries to find a manner of concluding their arc it really veers off course with some awkward plot developments that feel like they were part of another film altogether.  I guess this all begs one question: Why have a love story about two critically ill teens that uses CF as a major plot point when all the makers end up doing is putting them through the obligatory paces of other hackneyed and formulaic genre pictures?  

FIVE FEET APART begins so promisingly, and then meanders down towards a would-be tear inducing finale that anyone with a pulse that's not six feet under could see coming from a mile away.  It's a tenderly acted finale, yes, but it never earns our tears.  On one level, small kudos should be given to the film for at least raising some awareness as to how dreadful Cystic Fibrosis is for people, most of whom will most likely never grow up, get married, have children, and reach a ripe old age.  There's a sobering theme at play here of learning to love someone despite impenetrable obstacles because, when life's devastatingly short, what other choice do chronically ill people have?  Deep down, there's noble minded intentions at the heart of FIVE FEET APART, but if one strips away the angle of CF affecting its two main characters then this film is just another dime-a-dozen and pretty disposable youth romance drama that doesn't subvert or transcend the genre in any meaningful way.  And because of that, the terminal illness at play here feels more like a misguided storytelling device than anything else, which leaves FIVE FEET APART feeling more unsavory and exploitative than it should have been. 

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