A confessional monologue about the power of touch opens Five Feet Apart, the new Sick Kid YA film about two terminal Cystic Fibrosis patients who meet and fall in love. Their main obstacle: the inability to connect physicality, as their proximity – they must remain six feet apart at all times – could be fatal. The film, written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (the upcoming The Curse of La Llorona) and directed by newcomer Justin Baldoni (Raphael from Jane The Virgin) is imbued with all of the expected plot developments and character types, which only makes it all the more shocking that this is an original story and not an adaptation of a pre-existing book. Still, with a solidly compelling pair of likable leads and a tolerable amount of emotional manipulation (par for the course), it’s not hard to see the tale of star-crossed lovers connecting with its core audience.
Five Feet Apart opens on teenager Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) packing with her friends for a beach vacation. The girls laugh and carry on, but as soon as Stella’s friends leave, her face collapses and she begins to cry. Throughout the scene, Baldoni keeps the camera tight on the girls and the artwork on the wall; it’s only after Stella cries that the camera pulls back to reveal that the exchange occurred in a long-term residence room in a hospital and not in a teenage girl’s bedroom.
Stella, we learn, is a terminal patient on the transplant list for new lungs. She has recently been re-admitted to the hospital for a “tune up” and given her familiar interactions with strict Nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), kindly Dr. Hamid (Parminder Nagra), and CF bestie Poe (Moises Arias), Stella is a regular. She’s also a self-confessed OCD patient – her med cart is colour-coded and she maintains a strict time-coded regimen catalogued in daily task lists. Part of this control is the result of a personal tragedy; the other stems from the firm belief that following the rules of her treatment will keep her alive long enough to find a transplant match.
Naturally this contained, insulated existence comes into conflict when she has a meet-cute with the new patient on the floor, Will (Cole Sprouse) – a bad boy who refuses to follow the rules, wear his protective face mask and has a deeply cynical perspective on their life prospect. The fact that the site of their meeting is at the nursery – a location brimming with hope and new life – is just one of the many obvious, verging on heavy-handed visual symbols baked into the narrative. Despite their grim prospects, the pair ultimately wind up falling for each other when they strike a bargain: he will adhere to Stella’s health regimen and in exchange she will pose for a life drawing.
Of course, there is that pesky six foot rule, which is strictly enforced by Nurse Barb like a hawk (a throwaway line establishes that a couple died under her watch and she can’t go through it again). But love (or, based on the lukewarm chemistry between Richardson and Sprouse, affection) knows no bounds in YA. Barb’s reluctance and the distance prompts the teens to adopt a five foot pool cue as their barometer and turn the hospital into their own personal dating environment, which also encourages the film to get a little creative visually.
Considering that the film is situated almost entirely within the confines of the hospital, it is impressive that Baldoni manages to create distinctly unique environments for Stella and Will’s exploits on the roof, the atrium, the kitchen and the pool.
The latter is the site of both the film’s best and most cringe-worthy sequences. Five Feet Apart is obsessed with talk of life, death, and CF (there are literally no other topics). This obviously poses a logistical problem for a film that is ostensibly selling romance to its audience: there is no chance of seeing this pair of attractive young actors kiss, have sex or even hold hands.
Hence the pool scene, which encourages both some partial nudity and the incredibly awkward use of a pool cue as a proxy for a hand (not that way, the film is rated PG-13). More than simply finding a way to showcase an attractive cast, however, the scene also functions as an impactful visual reminder of the costs of the disease. When Stella and Will strip down, their pale thin bodies are riddled with scars from invasive surgical procedures, as well as feeding tubes. Couple this with the pervasive (and impressive) make-up on the actors that highlights the bags under their eyes, as well as the wheezing that accompanies any efforts to over-exert themselves.
Five Feet Apart sells its romance, but the film never forgets that it is also a tragedy about the challenges of living a differently abled life (the word able is mentioned only once, during the film’s closing monologue). Like other Sick Kid narratives, this is love operating on borrowed time and tragedy is always lurking in the wings.
This convention only serves to make the film’s last act so frustrating. Daughtry and Iaconis’ script is unabashedly cliché-ridden and frequently emotionally manipulative, but there’s an earnestness (and an expectation) that makes it palatable throughout the majority of the runtime. The film’s climax, however, falls prey to the writers’ worst instincts, as the desire to shoehorn drama, a ticking clock and forbidden encounters into the plot renders the ending of Five Feet Apart utterly ridiculous.
It’s a sour note to end an otherwise enjoyable film on, especially one with such incredibly likeable leads (Richardson, rocking some heavy Zoey Deutch vibes, is particularly winsome).
Fans of other teen tearjerkers such as The Fault In Our Stars and… well… pretty much anything in the Nicholas Sparks oeuvre, will find plenty to enjoy here. Still, it would have been easier to recommend Five Feet Apart had it not torpedoed its own ending.