VOD film review: Five Feet Apart
Haley and Cole8
Matthew Turner | On 18, Jul 2019
Director: Justin Baldoni
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Parminder Nagra
The feature debut of actor-turned-director Justin Baldoni (Rafael on Jane the Virgin), this hospital-set romantic drama about a pair of terminally ill teens clearly hopes to emulate the success of 2014’s The Fault In Our Stars. It gets halfway there, thanks to a pair of above-and-beyond performances from its two leads, but it’s ultimately let down by a formulaic script and a weak final act.
Haley Lu Richardson (whose star is rapidly rising, thanks to her delightful supporting turns in The Edge of Seventeen and Support the Girls) plays Stella Grant, whose video blog helpfully informs us that she has cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that fills the lungs with mucus and requires constant treatment. While in hospital waiting for a lung transplant, she meets fellow “CFer” Will Newman (Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse) and, after the time-honoured rocky start, the pair gradually fall in love. However, there’s a problem – Will carries a bacteria called B. cepacia that could prove deadly to Stella, requiring the pair to remain six feet apart at all times (the film eventually explains why the title drops that to five).
As such romances go, Five Feet Apart has a pretty great hook – what if you fell in love with someone but weren’t allowed to touch them, let alone kiss them? The script, by Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis (which also spawned a novelisation by Rachel Lippincott) milks that angle for maximum heartache but it’s the performances from the two leads that really bring the film to life.
Richardson, in particular, is terrific as Stella, who strives to remain perpetually positive in the face of her illness. She has self-confessed control issues, which is why she intervenes so strongly when she realises Will isn’t sticking to his drug trial regimen. Richardson makes Stella fun to be around, while simultaneously suggesting the fear and sadness underneath – there’s also a layer of guilt, the cause of which is gradually revealed, as if the initial set-up weren’t enough of a tear-jerker already.
Sprouse is equally good, displaying the blend of cynicism and charisma that has made him a star as Jughead Jones on Riverdale. Watching Stella’s positivity win him over forms a large part of the film’s appeal. He also generates white-hot chemistry with Richardson, which reaches its apotheosis in the film’s key scene, involving a swimming pool and a five-foot-long pool cue.
There’s strong support from Kimberly Hebert Gregory as kindly nurse Barb (who has the heart-breaking job of trying to keep Stella and Will apart), while Moises Arias (from Kings of Summer) makes the most of his underwritten-but-still-clichéd gay best friend role as fellow CFer Poe. Elsewhere, the film criminally wastes Claire Forlani as Will’s mother, giving her fewer than three lines (one strongly suspects there was a subplot that got cut out). However, the film’s real scene-stealer is a cute toy panda that’s in multiple scenes (including flashbacks), but is never named.
The film is filled with nice touches, such as the use of the video diary to convey information about cystic fibrosis, without being too preachy, and there’s an impressive level of detail in the treatment, including the use of vibrating jackets to bring up phlegm.
However, the film ultimately stumbles over a contrived and manipulative final act that feels too much like a cop-out. Still, the presence of Richardson and Sprouse ensures that the rest of the film is worth your while.