Chances are you will recognize Haley Lu Richardson. Maybe because you saw her play Hailee Steinfeld’s affable best friend of in 2017’s The Edge of Seventeen. Or perhaps you caught a glimpse or two of her as one of the side victims in Shyamalan’s Split in 2016. There’s also her slew of television roles over the last seven years, including Ravenswood, Awkward, an episode of Law & Order: SVU, a recurring role on Recovery Road, Disney Channel’s Shake It Up, and many more.
Hopefully, a growing number of you have appreciated Richardson’s central (and in some ways, career-defining) roles in the disappointingly underseen Columbus (2017) and Support the Girls (2018). Further back, she was Leslie in the romantic comedy The Young Kieslowski (2014) and Kendal in the post-apocalyptic The Last Survivors (2014). She had an unfortunate role to play in the sports comedy The Bronze (2015), but has shown up in solid short films like Follow (2015) and Meanamorphosis (2012). She’s also in Operation Finale (2018) and will be the centerpiece of the Julian Fellows-scripted The Chaperone later this month.
But Richardson’s next major release could be her most pivotal. It’s the project that will either push her toward the heights of independent cinema, or, alternatively, the big leagues. That movie is Five Feet Apart, a romantic dramedy directed by Justin Baldoni (Rafael from Jane the Virgin), which hits wide release this weekend. Richardson stars in the lead role against Cole Sprouse, another young actor now facing a potential shift from the small screen to the big. Sprouse’s recent Riverdale fame impressively measures up against his early start on the Disney Channel and even earlier appearances on Friends. If any two actors were on a similar wavelength, it might be these two.
Five Feet Apart faces critical competition from Captain Marvel, the big superhero movie of the month (Shazam isn’t coming too far long after). In a world where The Fault in Our Stars can find surprise success thanks to a large YA fandom rooted in a noise-breaking bestseller, it’s hard to tell if the similarly plotted Five Feet Apart carries the same weight with this target audience. That said, it will probably do well for what is likely a low budget film, or at least good enough to justify its existence. Especially if it’s, well, good.
Even if it’s not, Richardson will continue as an actor who generates immediate excitement when attached to a new film, regardless of budget or director. To describe her appeal as an indie actress is limiting no matter what words are chosen, but “imperfectly perfect” comes to mind. It would, of course, be lazy to compare Richardson to Greta Gerwig or Brie Larson
— two very different actresses who also became “it girls” of indie cinema in the last couple of decades based on their consistently memorable performances in several low-and-mid-budget films.
But Richardson is Richardson, a generational talent we’re in the middle of discovering. Her strengths lie in conveying passion, notably in Columbus, where her entire persona is defined by a single interest she transforms into, a deeply complex being who feels more human than almost any other written character in recent memory. She stars in that film alongside John Cho, an actor who also has a knack for letting scenes meditate on a single word or glance, overlooking raw outbursts over something more suggestive and difficult to shake.
In Support the Girls, Richardson shows off her wide range as a comedic performer, but also her ability to perfectly complement the film’s true lead, Regina Hall. What would otherwise be a hokey, regrettable performance dabbling in low-brow fare is elevated to tragic and cathartic thanks to Richardson’s dynamic authenticity. She’s tasked with masking the dread of a customer service job with a believable (but not too believable) enthusiasm, which is pinned by a particularly resonating final scene with Hall and Shayna McHayle making a shouting match look aspirational.
Which brings us back to Five Feet Apart, which has the same opportunity to transcend its emotionally formulaic groundwork for a convincing love story about sick teenagers. Early reviews aren’t looking great, and it bears repeating that the box office competition remains stiff. Will fans of the source material show up in droves? Hard to tell. Will the film be melodramatic? Almost certainly. Will we care? Thanks to Richardson, anything’s possible.