Five Feet Apart is a well-acted YA romance and provides some welcome representation, but eventually finds itself bogged down in shlocky melodrama.
Given its premise (two teenagers dealing with a life-threatening condition fall in love), it's near-impossible and not at all unfair to compare Five Feet Apart to the YA hit The Fault in Our Stars. Both are stories about young people who know that they're living on borrowed time and how that informs their views on romance and the future. In Five Feet Apart's case, however, it's also shining a light on cystic fibrosis and what daily life is like for those who have the genetic disorder. As noble as the film's intentions are though, that doesn't mean it gets a free pass on using cheap storytelling tricks. Five Feet Apart is a well-acted YA romance and provides some welcome representation, but eventually finds itself bogged down in shlocky melodrama.
The film wastes little time before introducing its protagonists and fellow CF patients Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will Newman (Cole Sprouse). From the get-go, the characters fit squarely into the archetypes of the uptight girl (Stella even says she has clinical OCD) and the disaffected guy, but the fact that both have been hospitalized and are undergoing a special treatment - to try and combat their challenging genetic discorder - grounds their behavior in more believable human emotions. There's never any real doubt as to how the pair are ultimately going to to impact each other's lives, but Five Feet Apart nevertheless takes the time to explore the characters' psychology in depth and examine what makes them tick.
More than anything, it's Sprouse and Richardson that elevate the proceedings above the trappings of a hackneyed teen romance. The pair have brought depth and soul to their roles in coming of age fare as varied as The Edge of Seventeen and Riverdale, respectively, and there are even traces of their previous roles in the characters here (Will definitely has shades of Jughead Jones' sardonic sense of humor and his artistic sensitivity). Five Feet Apart spends little time fleshing out Will and Stella's relationships with their parents, but their romantic chemistry with one another is enough to carry the film on its own. That said, Moises Arias is a welcome addition as Poe (another teen CF patient and, basically, Stella's gay best friend), as is Kimberly Herbert Gregory as their understandably strict caretaker, Barb.
As formulaic as the narrative and players are, admittedly, that's kind of the point: Five Feet Apart is meant to be a typical love story, just one where the main characters have a genetic disorder. Director Justin Baldoni - aka. Rafael Solano on Jane the Virgin - uses a number of familiar techniques from the YA romance playbook to bring Stella and Will's story to cinematic life, whether it be having them bond and fall in love through montage or employing gentle pop music to set the mood during any particular scene. His approach does little to differentiate the film from similar YA movies stylistically, but it gets the job done and keeps the focus on Will and Stella's day to day lives. Indeed, one of Five Feet Apart's greatest strengths is the amount of time it devotes to showing the minutiae of daily life for CF patients.
Unfortunately, the film runs into a wall when it reaches its third act. Obviously, Will and Stella's story had to take a turn for the melodramatic sooner or later, but the script by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis resorts to some decidedly contrived plot twists in an effort to brings things to a head. These story beats are predicable at best and regressive at their worst, which ends up making the movie as a whole feel far more problematic than it does for its first two-thirds. Thankfully, Five Feet Apart manages to avoid crossing the line into exploitative drama and mostly lands somewhere in the middle, on the scale of tear-jerking teen love stories. Still, for a movie that toys with being a mold-breaker at times, it's a disappointing turn of events.
At the end of the day though, Five Feet Apart gives CF patients a soapy love story to call their own, if not an especially strong or memorable one. It seems unlikely to follow in The Fault in Our Stars' footsteps and become the next YA romance sensation, but the film nevertheless has something to offer its target audience, thanks to its leads' sensitive and charismatic performances. The movie's actual title alludes to an act of rebellion on Will and Stella's parts, as CF patients are supposed to stay six feet apart at all times to avoid catching infections from each other (hence, the pair "steal" one foot back). Ultimately, however, Five Feet Apart falls short of achieving the rebellious standard that it aspires to.
Five Feet Apart is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 112 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and suggestive material.
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- Five Feet Apart (2019) release date: Mar 22, 2019