With the explosion of young-adult fiction in recent years, it sometimes feels like we’re living through the second coming of Romeo and Juliet – a renaissance age of swooning first love doomed by the fickle hand of romantic fate. The teenage leads in these films are always impossibly good looking and precociously poised even when the universe conspires against their union. Sigh.
As a movie critic, I’ve been duty-bound to sit through most of these films, for better and worse. Twilight. The Fault in Our Stars. The Space Between Us. Even the aptly-named Beastly (You can send your condolence cards c/o Entertainment Weekly). Once in a very long while, though, a truly special, sudsy example of the genre will come along and make all of these endurance tests worth the while. I desperately wanted Five Feet Apart to be that movie. Alas, it’s not. It’s just another three-hankie teen weepie, albeit one with the saving grace of another excellent Haley Lu Richardson performance that gooses the film just past serviceable into the realm of slightly better than average.
Richardson, who looks like a young Elizabeth McGovern and possesses an emotional complexity that elevates her above her Hollywood peer group, stars as Stella – a teenager living with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that attacks the lungs. Because of her condition, she has to spend long stretches in the hospital, which she’s sunnily fashioned into a sort of dorm-like, Breakfast Club home away from home with her gay best friend and fellow CF patient, Poe (Moises Arias). Despite Stella’s diagnosis, she’s a perky optimist (or at least tries to be), using OCD orderliness to combat the chaos inside her body. The script may be pretty one-dimensional, but Stella is a fully three-dimensional character thanks to the actress playing her, which won’t be a surprise for anyone who’s seen Richardson in Columbus and Support the Girls.
But even an actress of Richardson’s range can’t singlehandedly rescue the tear-jerking YA clichés swarming around her. Those tropes start to pile up especially high with the arrival of Will — a new CF patient played by Riverdale hunk Cole Sprouse. With his brooding air and thick, tousled mop of Byronic hair, Will is a tragic rebel bad boy ripped from the teen-steam pages of Tiger Beat. Even if you don’t know the type, you know the type. He’s undergoing an experimental drug trial for an antibiotic-resistant infection that that will keep him and Stella apart. Literally.
Stella and Will have nothing in common, which, of course, means that they’re destined to fall hopelessly in love. But even on their clandestine, after-hours dates in the hospital, they’re forced to keep their distance – a rule she enforces by carrying a pool cue as a physical barrier and reminder of their inability to get too close. As metaphors go, this one pretty much clobbers you over the head. Sadly, it’s also one of the more subtle choices in the script, which punctuates every melodramatic beat with a treacly on-the-nose ballad on the soundtrack.
Director Justin Baldoni (Jane the Virgin) clearly has his heart in the right place and even has a few interesting ideas up his sleeve, but they mostly get overwhelmed by the shamelessly contrived prerogatives of the doomed-lovers movie category that first minted box-office gold with 1970’s Love Story. Stella and Will’s heart-to-heart moments of arm’s-length intimacy will, no doubt, be catnip for tween audiences hooked on puppy-love tales of poetic yearning. Especially one in which Stella and Will strip down and reveal their surgery scars to one another and Will whispers, “I wish I could touch you.” But everyone else will be able to see the next plot complication driving down Fifth Avenue. Even if you find yourself getting choked up by Five Feet Apart – and you will – you’ll know deep down that you’re being played. My advice is to just let yourself have that good cry. There’s plenty of time to feel ashamed about it tomorrow. B-