Five Feet Apart is what some people call a “disease movie.” Admittedly, it features two lead characters who suffer from a potentially fatal ailment that threatens to tear apart their blossoming romance, much like everything from Love Story to The Fault in Our Stars. That term seems derogatory, though. The story being told here isn't merely about a disease. Instead, it gets at a bigger idea related to the desire for connection. Anyone could make a film in which characters get sick and/or die. To make one saying something that applies to every viewer, regardless of their health, is a lot harder.
Haley Lu Richardson plays Stella, a 17-year-old girl hospitalized due to her cystic fibrosis. In desperate need of a new pair of lungs, she dutifully follows her health regimen until a donor can be found. Her life changes when a new patient enters the facility. Will (Cole Sprouse) also suffers from CF and hopes that an experimental treatment will improve his quality of life. The difference is that where Stella is anal-retentive about following the rules, Will is more prone to breaking them. Of course, they fall in love. Their relationship is hindered by the fact that CF patients are required to stand a certain distance away from one another, so as not to pass along germs.
Five Feet Apart provides a lot of information about cystic fibrosis, often by showing snippets of YouTube videos Stella makes to educate others. Leaning about the disease helps provide substance to the bond between Stella and Will. Because we come to understand what the hazards are, our empathy for them grows. Both know that their time on earth will be short, although neither knows just how short. This creates a certain degree of fear. Why get close to someone knowing there's a good chance you'll just lose them before too long?
At the same time, the movie convincingly depicts their shared yearning to break free of the restrictions that forbid proximity and physical contact. Loving someone you can't reach out and touch is its own particular kind of hell, which the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis makes crystal clear. As much as Stella and Will want to experience normal elements of young love – including acts as simple as holding hands – they realize that doing so poses substantial danger. The inherent emotion of that idea draws you in.
Five Feet Apart has a not-so-secret weapon: Haley Lu Richardson. The actress, who previously gave impressive performances in Edge of Seventeen and Support the Girls, brings Stella to life in a way that earns and maintains sympathy. She doesn't hit a single wrong note. Every ounce of joy, of worry, of heartache, and of love the character feels is made palpable for the viewer thanks to her efforts. With this role, Richardson cements her status as one of the most inordinately talented actresses of her generation.
It's a good thing she's so phenomenal, since Five Feet Apart fumbles a little bit in the last twenty-five minutes. The dramatic resolution is set in motion by an excessively melodramatic event. The wrap-up, meanwhile, becomes needlessly manipulative. What happens is designed to get the audience choked up, rather than to serve the honesty that the movie has worked so hard to build up to this point.
Richardson's stellar turn, combined with the sincere chemistry she strikes up with Cole Sprouse, keeps you invested despite the unfortunate detour into semi-sappiness. Overall, Five Feet Apart is a poignant tale about how important it is to have the people we care about most right there next to us, through bad times and good.
out of four
Five Feet Apart is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.