Five Feet Apart, 2019.
Directed by Justin Baldoni.
Starring Cole Sprouse, Haley Lu Richardson, Moisés Arias, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Parminder Nagra, Emily Baldoni, Gary Weeks, and Claire Forlani.
Two teenagers with life-threatening illnesses meet in a hospital and fall in love.
Technically not a cinematic universe, the latest edition of diseased and doomed star-crossed teenagers, Five Feet Apart, focuses on a hospital wing dedicated to treating patients with cystic fibrosis. It’s also important to note that these patients are instructed to remain six feet apart from one another at all times to negate the risk of mixing up their individual bacteria, subsequently intensifying their sickness. The first question on anyone’s mind is likely “then why the hell is the movie called Five Feet Apart“, which is a fair enough inquiry.
Haley Lu Richardson (the tremendously talented young actress that can be seen in far better films such as Columbus and Support the Girls) spends more time inside hospitals than outdoors due to her condition (although she does have big dreams like traveling the world with her sister Abby). Despite the all-consuming frustrations piled on by cystic fibrosis she sticks to her medication and daily routines strictly, so much so that when new patient and heartthrob Will (Cole Sprouse, who cannot emote as well or hang with his co-star dramatically) shows up with a carefree bad boy attitude towards a disease he feels is not worth fighting, she becomes determined to help him get back on track, show him that life is worth living, and get as emotionally close to him as possible while acknowledging the distance rule.
On one hand, it’s legitimately refreshing to watch a sappy romance where the girl must save the boy, but I’m also not sure it matters when the results are middling at best. Naturally, a PG-13 love story is going to lob softballs at this subject matter, as evident during a thematic scene where the lovebirds strip down as much as the MPAA will allow for a movie like this, fully displaying their surgery scars and bruised bodies, but all of this is undercut by the fact that these people are extremely attractive regardless of cystic fibrosis. Sure, they also appear sickly (credit the makeup department for their efforts), but if you’re telling a romantic story about people that the majority of our shallow society would deem undesirable or unworthy of a meaningful relationship, you don’t cast these people. Hollywood will never learn, continuing to make these misguided films once a year, proving time and time again that it’s easy to find love with a terminal illness as long as your impossibly attractive.
With that said, the script from Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis draws these teenagers with intelligence and maturity that is noticeably a cut above their peers living a normal life. The story is heavy-handed but it does contain believable dialogue and motives, for the most part. Basically, Five Feet Apart truly goes off the rails with a third act so ridiculous viewers will spend most of it pondering if the movie will actually go to most painfully predictable route obvious. It’s also a narrative direction that sucks away every positive complement I just gave these characters regarding their smarts. Baffling doesn’t even begin to describe it, as the movie also shoves forced melodrama in your face with the impact of two freight trains colliding head-on.
The hospital staff is also some of the absolute worst ever depicted, including a well-meaning and caring nurse named Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) that expresses wanting to keep Stella and Will apart so there are no repeats on her watch of a previous incident where she allowed a pair of love birds to stay close to one another in private, presumably worsening each other’s cystic fibrosis, and inevitably dying. That’s all fine and good, but her and the rest of the employees in charge of this establishment have a habit of letting anyone and everyone wander off alone without so much as a clue where they are. At one point, Stella and Will actually casually walk out of the hospital (no stealth) to take a walk and go look at Christmas lights. Now I haven’t been hospitalized since 2011 *knocks on wood* but I’m fairly certain no terminally ill teenager can get up and leave the building for any reason without some kind of confrontation, but you know, plot contrivances and all that.
It’s a shame considering there are things to like in Five Feet Apart; Haley Lu Richardson nails her emotional monologues regarding how much cystic fibrosis has taken from her, Stella has a longtime companion named Poe (Moises Arias) struggling through relationship woes of his own (he is also gay which the film wisely never makes the defining trait of his character), it’s accurate for repeat hospital visitors to become friends with the various tender nurses out there, and no matter how ludicrous a hospital date sounds, it’s actually touching. There is also some nice cinematography that plays up the emotional struggle of being so close yet still far apart. And without spoiling anything, Stella also goes through an arc of survivor’s guilt, which has its ups and downs thematically like the rest of the movie.
The problem is that the lows of Five Feet Apart drag the teenage romance story six feet under; it doesn’t even feel crafted by the same filmmaking team (I actually checked to see if the movie switched or had multiple directors, but Justin Baldoni is indeed the only attached name) and destroys whatever goodwill that can be found up until that point. I’m not sure what’s more stupid, the final 30 minutes or the outrageously incompetent hospital staff.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com