FIVE FEET APART

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Justin Baldoni

Stars: Hayley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberley Hebert Gregory, Claire Forlani, Parminder Nagra.

Love means having to stay five feet apart?

Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson in Five Feet Apart (2019)

If you loved other examples of so-called “sick lit” such as the 1970s classic weepie Love Story or the more recent 2014 YA tearjerker The Fault In Our Stars then you will certainly enjoy this bittersweet, overly manipulative romantic drama about a pair of terminally ill teens who meet and fall in love in a hospital.

Seventeen-year old Stella Grant (Hayley Lu Richardson, from The Edge Of Seventeen, etc) suffers from cystic fibrosis, a life threatening genetic disorder that affects the lungs. She is undergoing a trial drug program in a medical facility that will prolong her life while she waits for a life-saving lung transplant and seems to have made herself quite at home. A vibrant and perennially upbeat teen she also vlogs about her condition and shares videos about what it is like to live with such a debilitating disease. She also spends time with her gay best friend Poe (Moises Arias, from Enders Game, etc), who also suffers from the disease. She has also befriended the clinic’s hard-nosed but caring head nurse Barbara (Kimberley Hebert Gregory, from tv series Better Caul Saul, etc) who looks after her charges with devotion and kindness.

Then one day she meets the brooding, rebellious and handsome artist Will Newman (Cole Sprouse, from the tv series Riverdale, etc), who also suffers from cystic fibrosis but is less diligent in following the drug protocols. The two are opposites in personality, but in true Romeo and Juliet like fashion these two star-crossed lovers form a strong bond and are inevitably drawn together. But, as Barbara informs them, they need to stay six feet apart so as not to contaminate each other with their bacteria. But Stella decides that the length of a pool cue (the titular five feet) should suffice to keep them safe while bringing them closer together.

Written by first time feature film writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, Five Feet Apart taps into some of the usual clichés of the teen romance, and while it has some heart-warming moments it is also bittersweet, effectively manipulative, and overly melodramatic. However, the film is quite realistic when dealing with cystic fibrosis and the impact it has on the lives of those who suffer from the terrible disease. And thankfully it avoids the look and feel of a made for disease of the week tv movie

The film heralds the feature film directorial debut of actor turned filmmaker Justin Baldoni, best known for his ongoing role in the tv series Jane The Virgin. As a filmmaker he believes that his work should try, in his own words, “to elevate human compassion”, and this film follows his acclaimed work on the 2012 digital documentary series My Last Days, which followed the experiences of several teens suffering from terminal illnesses. It was the most watched series of its type.

The film is grounded by the two lead performances. Richardson is charming, feisty and resilient, and delivers a nuanced performance that is full of emotional weight. She shares a palpable chemistry with former child star Sprouse, who was one of the twin brothers who played the cute kid that Adam Sandler raised in Big Daddy. As well as starring with his twin sibling in the tv series The Suite Life Of Zach And Cody, he has matured into a strong, hunky actor that will set the girls’ hearts fluttering. This is Sprouse’s first film role in eight years and he is good as the free spirited but tormented but vulnerable artist, and he brings some emotional depth to the character. Baldoni worked with Sprouse on an episode of his tv series.

The character of Poe is treated sympathetically, which allows Arias to bring some touches of humour to his role. Gregory has a formidable presence as the authoritarian nurse Barbara, while Parminder Nagra (from ER, etc) is ironically wasted in a small role as a doctor.

There is some great production design from Tony Fanning (Ideal Home, etc), which creates the well lit and warm spaces of the hospital, giving the film a cheery upbeat feel. The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Frank G DeMarco (All Is Lost, etc).

Five Feet Apart is a cliched and formulaic but inoffensive YA romantic drama, and it will resonate strongly with its target audience.

★★★☆

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