'Five Feet Apart': Film Review

A flat, by-the-numbers YA melodrama.

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse are lovers with cystic fibrosis in Justin Baldoni’s hospital-set teen romance.

It’s almost a rite of passage for young Hollywood stars to do their sick-teens-in-love film before they age out of the genre (The Fault in Our Stars or Everything, Everything). Haley Lu Richardson, so good in Columbus and Support the Girls, and Cole Sprouse, of Riverdale, take a crack at it in Five Feet Apart, about two hospital patients with cystic fibrosis. What starts as a promising film that takes the disease seriously and might even raise awareness about its challenges quickly turns into a romantic melodrama that checks all the familiar boxes. There are the mismatched personalities who somehow tumble into love, plus the will-they-or-won’t-they questions about sex and death. There are conveniently almost-absent parents, and for good measure a gay best friend. But there is not a believable spark between this Romeo and Juliet.

Director Justin Baldoni, better known as the actor who plays Rafael on Jane the Virgin, begins with a clear-eyed, unglamorized approach. Richardson is appealing and believable as Stella, who has made herself at home in the hospital, where she is on the waiting list for a lung transplant. She has a cartful of medication and a feeding tube in her stomach. We see some of this on her video blog, an efficient way for the film to let the audience know that CF, a genetic disease, makes breathing difficult, and for Stella to call herself a little OCD.

Stella runs into Will (Sprouse), who not only has CF but also carries a bacteria that would be especially dangerous for another CF patient. A nurse orders them to stay six feet apart, the distance a germ can travel through the air. With that premise, the film begins piling on the obstacles facing the characters, more than one already-sad story needs. The pair can’t touch, much less kiss, without endangering her life. Another twist is Stella’s grief and survivor’s guilt over the recent death of her older sister in an accident.

Where Stella is orderly, Will is irreverent and lackadaisical about his treatment in a clinical drug trial. She is a coder; he is a cartoonist. But they begin to win each other over when she bosses him around about following his doctors’ orders.

Richardson brings more to the role than the script offers, resourcefully capturing Stella’s stoic, bravura facade while suggesting the terrors underneath. In just a few films she has revealed an amazing gift for bringing ordinary women vividly to life. But she can’t save this movie single-handedly.

Sprouse, well, he looks worried, but doesn’t display much range. The secret of his performance seems to reside with his hair wranglers, who manage to have a lock of hair falling sexily over one eye in every scene, no matter how lousy Will is feeling. It’s not Sprouse’s fault that he has to deliver the most hackneyed lines, though. “We don’t have time for delicacies, Stella — we’re dying!” he says, urging her to carpe diem. As they grow closer, emotionally if not physically, he says, “God, you’re beautiful, brave. Wish that I could touch you.” There’s no hope for real emotion with all that sappiness.     

Baldoni, who has also made My Last Days, the documentary series on The CW about terminally ill people, had the original idea for Five Feet Apart. He brought in screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, and the story later became a best-selling novel by Rachel Lippincott, based on the screenplay. The film's genre-movie roots show. 

When Stella suggests to Will that they break the six-foot rule and make it five, neither of them mentions how illogical that is. If you’re going for five, why not four? Three? Her idea is a sign that Will has inspired some risk-taking, a turn that was obviously coming from the start.

Kimberly Hébert Gregory gives a solid performance in a thankless role as the caring nurse who keeps Will and Stella at a distance for their own good. Moises Arias can’t do much with the role of the understanding best friend, also a hospital patient, whom Stella encourages to live a little and make up with his boyfriend.

Baldoni and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco keep the camera moving fluidly and avoid claustrophobia even though most of the action takes place in the hospital. Will and Stella's video chats also help break up any monotony. Of course, Tony Fanning’s production design makes the setting look more like a luxury spa than a hospital, with spacious rooms and a swimming pool where Will and Stella escape one night, and where Baldoni finally creates sexual tension between this unlikely pair.

But as the story goes on, Baldoni teases more and more scenes. They might kiss. But will they? They’re closer. Maybe not. The film becomes more exhausting than tense. In the end, all that manipulation backfires. Unlike the best of its genre, the rote Five Feet Apart isn’t wrenching enough to jerk a single tear.

Production companies: Welle Entertainment, Wayfairer Entertainment
Distributor: CBS Films
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Parminder Nagra
Director: Justin Baldoni
Screenwriters: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Producers: Cathy Schulman, Justin Baldoni
Director of photography: Frank G. DeMarco
Production designer: Tony Fanning
Costume designer: Rachel Sage Kunin
Editor: Angela M. Catanzaro
Music: Brian Tyler, Breton Vivian
Casting: Barbara J. McCarthy

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes