By Kim Hughes
It’s impossible to write about Five Feet Apart and not reference another recent-ish, very successful young adult film chronicling oddly erudite teen paramours at once united and divided by their shared predatory illness.
Yet to simply label director Justin Baldoni’s romantic drama as the Cystic Fibrosis version of The Fault in Our Stars, though enormously tempting, does disservice to many of the new film’s winning aspects, not least committed performances by its gifted leads, one very sexy scene involving a pool cue (not what you think you filthy animal), and an absolute conviction in itself even if comparisons are inevitable. Temerity, it seems, can carry the day.
Seventeen-year-old Stella (played by 24-year-old Haley Lu Richardson) and just-turned-18 Will (26-year-old hunk-in-waiting Cole Sprouse) meet not-so-cute in the neo-natal ICU ward of the hospital they both grudgingly call home. Stella comes to gaze lovingly at the preemies; Cole comes to stare at Stella.
Both have CF though there the similarities stop. Stella is an aggressively perky control-freak with a regimented approach to managing her treatment and a heartbreak that propels her. Will is a nihilist whose participation in a coveted clinical trial fails to inspire much in him beyond fey indifference.
But Will draws, so we know behind that angry veneer beats the heart of an artist capable of lassoing Stella’s bleeding vulnerability. Both can see straight through nurse Barb’s tough-love posturing. (Us too).
And there is Poe (Moises Arias), Stella’s gay BFF who, as it happens, also has CF and occupies the same hospital floor as Stella and Will, if not the rarified orbit they tread. More on Poe and his ilk later.
Stella and Will do the dance of interest/no interest/maybe interest/romantic roadblock/screw you/ok maybe/oh fuck/what were those rules again?/OMG you’re hot!/spoiler/the end.
Yet amid those familiar stops, moments of genuine pathos emerge. It’s hard not to sympathize with the notion of young people suffering such an insidious disease, and while hospital life as it’s portrayed here is implausibly comfortable, no one is mistaking it for fun in the sun.
As well, the primary issue of mortality — and it’s played on multiple levels in Five Feet Apart, the title referring to the distance CF patients must keep from each other to avoid potentially lethal cross-infection — is a compelling one that resonates not just among the characters on screen but inevitably with audiences as well.
The film’s final act stretches credulity and hangs its hat on an impossibly (albeit suitably Harlequin-esque and dreamy) farewell sequence. Still, it’s all but certain the intended audience will find in Five Feet Apart a cogent and watchable weepie worthy of marquee status at sleepovers.
Now back to Poe. Dear filmmakers: can we please, please dispense with the ubiquitous and absurdly overused gay best friend? It’s lazy, predictable, and as tiresome clichés go, it’s the tiredest. Stop please, and thanks.
Five Feet Apart. Directed by Justin Baldoni. Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Parminder Nagra, and Claire Forlani. Opens wide March 15.