It’s almost irrelevant that Justin Baldoni’s “Five Feet Apart” is atypically urgent for a YA-flavored romantic drama about the impossible love between two star-crossed teenagers. Or that Haley Lu Richardson manages to pump some blood into even the most contrived moments of Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis’ script, reaffirming the “Columbus” and “Support the Girls” actress as a generational talent on the rise. It doesn’t really matter that the movie uses emotionally pornographic M83 songs and The Postal Service covers to pave over its bumpy stretches, or even that its climactic swing for the fences is an exhausting whiff at the end of a film that just needed to get the ball in play.
What’s important about “Five Feet Apart” is that it’s the first widely accessible Hollywood movie ever made about cystic fibrosis, and that it’s good enough to guarantee at least small uptick in awareness of (and attention to) the perennially under-supported fight to cure one of nature’s cruelest genetic diseases (it causes the human body to produce a thick mucus that covers vital organs and makes it difficult to breathe). That’s not to excuse the film’s shortcomings, but rather to acknowledge how Baldoni’s debut feature has a different and more pointed agenda than “The Fault in Our Stars” — how this overwrought weepy uses its subgenre as a means to an end.
The basic idea is brilliant and opportunistic in equal measure: Two horny teenage virgins are trapped in a building together and told that they’ll die if they ever touch. In fact, both of their lives are on the line if there’s ever less than six feet between their hormone-addled bodies. It’s all because Will (“Riverdale” thirst trap Cole Sprouse), the hunky new bad boy of the hospital’s pediatrics wing, is in a category of cystic fibrosis patients who carry a bacteria strain that is harmless to most people but potentially fatal to those with his condition. It gets worse: The B. cepacia bacteria can be easily spread upon contact with anyone else suffering from cystic fibrosis.
That’s a tough break for Stella (Richardson), a pert and seemingly permanent hospital resident who’s desperate to get close to someone — anyone — before she dies. Stella’s illness has isolated her from the world; she’d be alone if not for her YouTube channel, her nurses, and her sister who no longer seems to visit (parents are all but absent from this movie, which raises questions while also stressing how there are certain social needs that even the most dedicated moms and dads can’t meet for their kids).
On the surface, Stella appears to be the model patient: She’s bright-eyed and bubbly and doing the best she can with the hand life dealt her. She’s never missed a treatment — never broken a rule. Unfortunately, that’s because Stella is wracked by chronic OCD, and suffocating under the anxiety of someone who’s only really living to reward the love that people have shown her along the way. Richardson is brilliant at tempering her natural bubbliness with a deep sense of obligation (every smile feels like it’s for someone else), and the pressure that Stella puts on herself to survive is palpable.
That’s in stark contrast to Will, who’s armored himself against hope. He’s a brooding and disillusioned artist who refuses to accept how lucky he is to be involved in a new drug trial, and his defeatist attitude is enough to drive Stella insane. It’s the same combative dynamic that drives virtually every romantic comedy ever made, only confined to the world’s nicest hospital. The big hallways, spacious atrium, and twinkling swimming paul make it look more like a Hyatt; Will and Stella may never forget where they are, but the movie doesn’t have any interest in making you feel like you’re trapped there with them. That’s okay: While “Five Feet Apart” is obviously the CW version of teen hospital romance, it’s still grim enough to get the point across (much of that burden is shouldered by “Monos” star Moises Arias, who plays a spry but sickly patient who’s there to put things in perspective).
Functional direction, uninspired dialogue, and an over-reliance on music-driven montages make for plenty of tedium as the film clumsily positions itself for some melodramatic twists (as if cystic fibrosis weren’t enough!), but a little sincerity goes a long way. Baldoni, a “Jane the Virgin” cast member whose previous work behind the camera includes a documentary series about dying children (“My Last Days”), sees the humanity in these kids, and never allows them to be defined by their diagnoses. And while Sprouse’s performance is 95% glowers and grins, he and Richardson both effectively internalize the shared dilemma of their characters: With such a stubborn and demanding condition, how does someone use the treatment to live, instead of just living for the treatment?
The film is at its best when Stella and Will are feeling their way between risk and reward — when they’re negotiating (with themselves and each other) the difference between “life is short” and “it could be a lot shorter.” The consequences are clear, but what do they really have to lose? The strongest and least sanitized moment comes towards the end of their first date, as the teens stand at the edge of the hospital pool and stare at each other as they strip off their clothes to reveal the scars underneath. The more they act like normal kids, the more their bodies deny that illusion; the closer they get to each other, the harder it is to maintain a healthy distance. This very PG-13 movie doesn’t touch on the Herculean self-restraint it requires for two consenting quasi-terminal high school kids not to touch each other, but prudishness has little to do with the greater point.
Sex isn’t especially relevant to how Stella and Will show each other that life is worth living. On the contrary, the emphasis is less on their bodies than it is the space between them. The movie is called “Five Feet Apart,” which is 12 inches closer than these kids are allowed to get. There’s a reason for that: As the well-motivated but ridiculously labored third act makes clear, this is a story about reclaiming a measure of joy from the world — of owning a bit more of the time we’ve borrowed. That one foot might not seem like a lot, but for Stella it’s an incredible victory. After all, finding a cure for cystic fibrosis has always been a game of inches. In the 1950s, most kids with the condition didn’t survive grade school. Now, the average life expectancy is 37.
“Five Feet Apart” isn’t a charity project, and there’s something a wee bit icky about how cleverly its premise exploits the quirks of a terminal affliction, but there’s no way around the fact that this movie has a future beyond its profit margins. Decent enough as a night out but destined to be used as a fundraising tool, the film is galvanized by its push towards a perverse kind of representation; the idea isn’t to make people with cystic fibrosis feel seen, but rather to erase them altogether. And the highest compliment one can pay to “Five Feet Apart” is that it has the power to play a small, valuable role in that effort.
CBS Films and Lionsgate will release “Five Feet Apart” in theaters on Friday, March 15.