I have to admit, I was genuinely shocked when I learned that this romantic-drama about a pair of teenagers, both with cystic fibrosis (CF), wasn’t based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. In fact, it’s not based on a novel at all, but instead comes from writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, and now I know exactly who to blame. Practically inventing a whole new type of manipulative love story, Five Feet Apart is set almost entirely in the hospital where these two youngsters now seem to live full time, destined to spend the rest of their days going through grueling medication regimens and upkeep therapies that make their lives one big schedule while they await lung transplants that will give them roughly five extra years of life at the most.
But wait, it turns out that one of the great ironies in the lives of CFers is that they can spend as much time as they want in close proximity to anyone else except other people with the disease, because the bacteria from other patients could actually make your own condition worse. It just so happens that the male in this relationship, Will (“Riverdale’s” Cole Sprouse), has the most dangerous of all bacteria, B. cepacia. The rule among all CFers is that they must stay at least six feet apart from each other or risk infection. To maximize our sympathetic agonies to this situation, the makers of Five Feet Apart (I’l get to the spatial discrepancy in a moment) cast the positively endearing Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen, Support the Girls, Columbus) as Stella, who is about as positive and proactive in wanting to keep herself alive as anyone could be, so obviously she’s destined for some sort of heartache and/or disappointment.
From director Justin Baldoni (known primarily as an actor on “Jane the Virgin”), Five Feet Apart certainly doesn’t spare us from the realities of this condition, but it finds every opportunity to reach into our chest and twist our heart in ways that feel like an emotional assault and not like a character study of two people falling in love under impossible circumstances. The depth of the manipulation here is substantial and unpleasant, not because it makes you feel something but because you can feel the film pushing you somewhere that it hasn’t emotionally earned. A prime example of this is the elf-like Moises Arias as Stella’s gay best CF friend Poe, who maneuvers things to bring Stella and Will together and might as well have “sacrificial lamb” tattooed across his forehead, because we know there’s no way we’re getting out of this film without the death of someone we’re meant to care about.
There’s no denying the likability of most of these actors. I especially liked the turn by Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Nurse Barb, a stern but fair caretaker who would rather these kids live longer than risk dying just to satisfy their hormones. Stella comes up with something of a compromise with Will when she reduces the safe space between them by one foot (thus the title) as a way of taking something back from CF. Yeah, that’ll show it. It’s possible to go through most of Five Feet Apart without hating the movie to any real degree, but in the final act, Stella makes a series of selfish and horrible decisions that didn’t make me dislike the movie any more, but they sure as hell made me hate her character, mostly because I didn’t buy that she would be so reckless or self-centered. It’s one thing to disagree with a person’s decisions; it’s another to be yanked out of the movie by choices that don’t make any sense based on everything we’ve learned about someone up to that moment.
Richardson is an actor who is easy to root for. She’s proven her talent time and time again in recent years, and she also seems like a genuinely cool person. So it actually pained me to watch her take part in this movie, despite getting the chance to see her take on a role that’s unlike anything she’s done to date. In the end, I blame the writing for this colossal miscalculation, but I’ll forever associate one of the most gifted young actors working today with this schmaltzy nonsense; she and the other actors raise the material to a degree, but that’s about as good as it gets.
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