Five Feet Apart (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
I’ve said it before, saying it again: Haley Lu Richardson. Put her name on your radar. She’s the real deal.
Five Feet Apart means well enough, it’s easy-to-watch, and if you don’t think much about it - the movie goes down just fine.
Going to be really hard to keep teenagers and young adults away from this.
Cole Sprouse. Attractive. Probably a really nice guy. Little more than a blank slate here, which holds the film back from any hopes of success.
Lots and lots of people are upset with Five Feet Apart for not only its misleading title (Cystic Fibrosis guidelines are that patients should remain six feet apart), but also the way in which it depicts the disease and the symptoms shown on screen.
Representation matters, but Cystic Fibrosis, and those personally affected by the disease, take a backseat to this run-of-the-mill, romantic melodrama about teenagers falling in love against all odds. Feels a bit disingenuous and a missed opportunity.
Five Feet Apart has a lofty premise - telling a teenage love story in and around the world of Cystic Fibrosis (CF), the debilitating genetic disorder that affects approximately 1 in 3,000 newborns worldwide. For many watching Five Feet Apart, CF is going to be something a lot of younger viewers may not know about. Awareness is key, and a film like this - directly geared towards teens and young adults - has the potential to educate, inform, and entertain all at the same time.
Unfortunately, the film skimps over the disease to give us yet one more star-crossed love story, where sick teenagers fall hopelessly in love and the condition they suffer from is little more than just one more barrier they must overcome to get to be together forever.
I am sorry if that sounds crass, because Five Feet Apart feels like it genuinely wants to do the right thing and honor those who suffer from CF and not make the disorder secondary to the love story. And yet, it ends up doing precisely the opposite of what it intends to do.
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is back in the hospital for an extended stay, hoping for a possible lung transplant. In a bittersweet opening, we find her settling into a culture she knows all too well. She is close to head nurse Barb (Kimberly Hébert Gordon) and her best friend Poe (Moises Arias), a more permanent resident of the hospital, who keeps dishing away on his latest boyfriend troubles.
Not too long after she returns to her makeshift home away from home, she crosses paths with fellow CF patient Will (Cole Sprouse), undergoing a clinical trial for a potential new medicine that might drastically improve his health and well-being. An attraction is instantly made. She is bookish, runs an active YouTube channel, and is something of a savvy coder. He is quiet, introspective, and a skilled drawer. Their yin-and-yang, opposites attract connection is complicated by the breathing tubes and oxygen packs which accompany them nearly everywhere they go.
“Jane the Virgin” co-star Justin Baldoni makes his feature-film directorial debut with Five Feet Apart, and he reaps the benefits of the terrific Richardson, clearly a star on-the-rise.
With her portrayal as the quiet, architecture student in 2017’s Columbus, and the Hooters-style, enigmatic waitress in 2018’s Support the Girls, Richardson is building a resume of distinct, different, and wholly unique characters who all are fully realized and infinitely complex. She works her magic again with Stella, avoiding the film’s landmines of teenage love story melodrama and formula, and tiptoeing around cheesy dialogue and unnecessary music montages. She continues to emerge as a tremendously underrated talent and we need to be paying more attention.
Richardson though can only do so much, and unfortunately, Sprouse is not giving her much to work with. His lack of range is striking, at times alarming, because never do we really believe a girl like Stella would fall for a boy like Will. After all, as a love story, we need those connections to bind us to their journey.
Sprouse, who began as a feisty, spirited comedic talent on Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” plays Will so restrained and withdrawn that it feels almost unimaginable that Sprouse even knows how to cut loose and/or be vulnerable on camera.
The bigger issues however come with the turn the film takes in the last half hour. Here, CF inexcusably becomes a prop.
I have to believe that this melodramatic turn, involving a rogue dinner party, two different instances where patients run away from the hospital, and the requisite health emergencies we know are inevitable in a movie like this, might seem a bit disingenuous and offensive to those personally touched or affected by Cystic Fibrosis.
What becomes apparent, especially in the film’s final half hour, is that Baldoni, and first-time screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, appear to really only be interested in Stella and Will’s love story - the Cystic Fibrosis is just the means with which we get there.
A sudden absence of logic and common sense in this same final act is distressing. And although no one is ever going to champion this as one of the best movies of 2019, the fact that the movie cannot even commit to the title of “Six Feet Apart” (the distance CF patients must remain apart from one another to avoid the risk of cross-infection), perhaps tells us all we need to know.
There are some fine moments in Five Feet Apart, almost exclusively when Richardson is on screen. Once we get the basics of what living with CF means for Stella, Poe, and Will, the story just wants to move on and do other things, rendering Five Feet Apart a pretty significant and unfortunate missed opportunity.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Claire Forlani, Parminder Nagra, Emily Baldoni, Gary Weeks, Kimberly Hébert Gordon.
Director: Justin Baldoni
Written by: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Release Date: March 15, 2019