‘Five Feet Apart’ injects new wrinkle into ill-teen romance
The dying teen/young-adult romance is such a familiar Hollywood genre that websites can devote lists to it. So “Five Feet Apart” — an earnest story about two teens afflicted with cystic fibrosis — must be viewed within that context, which offers a solid showcase for its young leads, Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, while laboring to flesh out a complete movie.
Basically, the format of these films provides uplift through grief, struggle and the threat of a premature death — a longer version of the song “Live Like You Were Dying.”
In this case, it’s a message conveyed pretty overtly, where the romance’s bittersweet aspect is expanded by the hurdle that literally compels the characters to stay apart and magnified by the fact both have grown up under CF’s shadow.
Marking the directing debut of “Jane the Virgin” co-star Justin Baldoni, “Five Feet Apart” came about through a documentary series that he produced, “My Last Days,” which profiled young people dealing with illness.
The movie tackles the explanation of its central conundrum through YouTube videos that Stella (“The Edge of Seventeen’s” Richardson) posts about her disease. While hospitalized for treatment, she meets Will (“Riverdale’s” Sprouse), who is brooding and distant at first, before the two gradually begin to fall for each other.
The problem, and it’s a big one, is that those with cystic fibrosis are especially dangerous to each other, causing hospital personnel (embodied by a caring nurse, played by Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to mandate that they must remain six feet apart at all times. How to fall in love, then, without actually touching?
The nagging imposition of that physical gap creates a palpable tension throughout the movie, prompting the rule-following Stella to push back against the guideline, even if it’s only by a symbolic foot.
There’s an undeniable poignance in the concept of young people living with the specter of death constantly at their shoulders, making it impossible to be “normal” kids. For Stella, there is the prospect of a lung transplant, while Will has entered into a clinical trial, providing at best wispy rays of hope.
“We’re breathing borrowed air,” Will snaps during his surly stage, before the two creatively find ways to romantically spend time together, which isn’t easy within the sterile confines of a hospital.
Therein, ultimately, lies the real challenge for “Five Feet Apart,” which can’t help but feel a trifle claustrophobic, while endeavoring — often through musical montages — to tease out the details of a relationship that begins with “We have nothing in common” and appears destined to end in tears.
Richardson, in particular, shines in the role. Yet the small-boned nature of these stories explains why in days of yore they primarily flourished as TV movies — the medium through which “Five Feet Apart,” after its theatrical release, is most likely to be seen.
Of course, Romeo and Juliet established the template for star-crossed lovers long ago; still, the star in “Five Feet Apart” might be more of an asterisk, one signaling that its young stars have bigger things in their futures.
“Five Feet Apart” opens March 15 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.