In a perfect world, only good things would happen to good people, and, conversely, only the worst of circumstances would befall the worst of us. Generous, kind girls who hold doors for the elderly would never experience a rainy day — in weather or in disposition. Sweet, patient boys who play fair and ask permission when it’s needed would always find happiness at the dusk of each day regardless of how bleak things looked at dawn. And the sordid somebodies, embodying some or all of the Seven Sins, would, I don’t know, get into a fender-bender once a month, constantly step on LEGOs while walking barefoot through their apartment, never have enough change to pay their parking meters, get hit with the rainbow wheel of death every time they finally settled on the perfect movie to watch on Netflix, and have to endure a gathering of their dysfunctional extended family for a weekly barbecue where the food was mediocre and the conversation unbearable.
But — and I don’t have to tell you this — we don’t live in such a candy-coated, right-is-right-and-wrong-is-wrong world. Ours is a dimension that has allowed a sentient, hate-spewing Cheez-It with an affinity for Diet Coke, Big Macs, poorly sculpted hairpieces, and racism to sit at the most esteemed seat ‘round the United States’ great dining table. It’s one in which Marvellian villains are living, breathing entities and not just comic book foes, preying on the weak and blaming hardship on the victims rather than bringing to an end the perpetrators. One that shrugs its shoulders at skyrocketing consumption of natural resources and, you know, guac still being several dollars extra at Chipotle. Our world lets un-fun, disappointing, frustrating things happen to those that deserve better.
The most recent instance of this unfortunate fate and fact of life involves Haley Lu Richardson, an actress I’m only half-certain is a real human and not an Earth angel; Riverdale star Cole Sprouse of former Disney Channel fame and current notoriety in the hard-to-crack realm of photography; and a little film called Five Feet Apart. From director Justin Baldoni, whose face many will recognize from Jane the Virgin and whose name a fair few will find familiar from his work helming various episodes from television series including Madam Secretary and The Bold and the Beautiful, Five Feet Apart is a not-so-shining example of a bad film that happened to good people.
Now, I’m not saying Five Feet Apart, a syrupy romantic drama about two sick teens, is anywhere near as terrible as The President Who Shall Not Be Named or the people who deny that our planet is round and getting hotter every year. What I am saying is that it doesn’t not fall to the unsavory end of the good-bad binary where those aforementioned things reside.
Baldoni’s feature film directorial debut, written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, Five Feet Apart follows Richardson’s Stella Grant and Sprouse’s Will Newman, a pair of 17-year-olds with cystic fibrosis, a long-term and incurable genetic disease that causes a whole host of problems mostly impacting breathing and proper lung function. It’s also a condition that makes patients extremely susceptible to cross-infection, and requires that any two sufferers remain at least six feet apart from one another to reduce the chance of any life-threatening germ-swapping going down. Five Feet Apart grounds its premise in this rule (an actual one set by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation) and reverse-engineers a romance around it.
The chipper rule-abider Stella, who makes YouTube videos to inform the masses about cystic fibrosis, keeps sane in the hospital room she’s confined to by making lists, checking them twice, and sticking to the same day-to-day routine as she awaits a lung transplant (that will only give her another five years of time). Her self-made, self-enjoyed monotony gets all shook up when the cynical-and-proud bad boy Will enters the picture. Like Stella, Will is stuck in the ultra-white alternate universe that hospitals so often feel like. Though he isn’t crossing his fingers for a shiny new lung like Stella is, Will is facing his own CF-related struggles: he’s participating in an experimental trial for a drug meant to treat a bacterial infection.
Knowing the circumstances that led to their stints in the hospital, one would easily discern that Stella and Will are no good for each other. His infection could spread to her with the slightest touch, and whammo-blammo — no fresh lung for Stella, all ’cause they were feeling like Selena Gomez and couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. But this is a schmaltzy romance aimed at what feels like a very specific age demographic (the precious early-to-mid-teens) and one that soaks itself in the “opposites attract” truism, and these are two kids who crave physical touch as much as any other 17-year-olds do. The rules Stella so staunchly follows and Will denies with a toss of his hair and a squint of his eyes are there to be broken. Before the pair know it, they’ve fallen hard — and changed each other in the process.
With the encouragement of Will to relax and take small risks and live while she’s still alive, Stella bends the CF standard a bit, vowing that she and Will can come a foot closer to one another so they’re only — you’ve figured it out — five feet apart. Spending time with Stella has made Will far less jaded and more inclined to do what he should (like, uh, not skip out on his medication), the sparkles of her personality pinging out and pricking away at the ice around his heart. There are antics between the two and Stella’s pal Poe (Moises Arias), the gay best friend that has regrettably become a token to female characters in a whole host of films irrespective of target audience. There are moments meant to make viewers smile amongst the sadness. And, of course, there are the countless scenes crafted to draw out sobs. (Did you expect anything less?)
Herein lies one of the biggest faults of Five Feet Apart: it feels manufactured and manipulative a lot of the time. It’s got gambits aplenty, all created for the shared aim of tugging on heartstrings. A sequence that sees Richardson and Sprouse strip to their skivvies, surgery scars and tubes running in and out of their bodies on full display, practically screams, “Look! We’re being vulnerable! This is meant to humanize us — and make you cry!”
Peaks of promise in Five Feet Apart are few, far between, and short-lived, things tumbling down the slope into the valley of slushy ridiculousness as quickly as they climbed to a place of potential promise. What carries out those downward pushes not catalyzed by the desire to play up the sick teen romance are the sharp drops in logic. Five Feet Apart is intended to be a heartbreaker, not a head-scratcher, but the sheer number of moments that lack any semblance of common sense would have you thinking otherwise.
It’s impossible not to argue that Baldoni, Daughtry, and Iaconis may have utilized cystic fibrosis as a plot mechanism — like the trio were more focused on weaving an emotional tale of two people falling in love in the face of enormous barriers than they were concerned about telling that same story while also properly depicting what life with CF can be like. Many who knew nothing about cystic fibrosis before Five Feet Apart will at least be made aware of the disease through the film, but it’s hard not to see how the creative team used cystic fibrosis as a filter through which they told their star-crossed story of two sick teens. They made CF tangential to Stella and Will’s romance, and didn’t really give a damn about it.
This reviewer’s opinion is that Ariana Grande was right in saying that god is a woman, and that the only detail the songstress left out was that the divine entity likely goes by the name of Haley Lu Richardson. She’s a distinct talent with a collection of fantastic turns (Columbus and Support the Girls are recent standouts) tucked under her belt. Just 24, Richardson brings a wisdom to her characters more commonly seen in actors at least twice her age. It truly cannot be understated how much respect and care with which Richardson treats the gigs she lands — never mind how different they may be. You’ll never seen her phone it in or do less than fully flesh out the women she plays, and it’s for that reason that Stella in Five Feet Apart redeems the film, if only slightly. Richardson is light on her feet — managing to avoid sinking into the many holes that pockmark the story and deftly dodging corny dialogue — and completely, miraculously believable. If Five Feet Apart does nothing else, it proves Richardson is Midas: the characters she touches always turn to gold.
The brightness of Richardson’s star is a double-edged sword to those who join her on screen, as Sprouse’s own dwarves in comparison — a diminishment made more apparent by the film’s flimsy, contrived, often contradictory script and hokey plot points that belittle its audience. (Really, Stella’s just allowed to administer her own medication? Coolcoolcool.) A skilled actor and a lovely person, I’m sure, Sprouse gets shoved in a trope box in Five Feet Apart. Daughtry and Iaconis give the actor more than his share of clunky dialogue to spout out, with not a lot of room for him to wiggle or imbue Will with the kind of fragility Riverdale fans have seen Sprouse lend Jughead Jones. Will is meant to be the antithesis of Stella (at least at first), all melodramatic and moody, but Five Feet Apart almost forces Sprouse to be the binary opposite to Richardson: colder than he is naturally and cloudier than his sunny co-star. And Sprouse is better than that.
Five Feet Apart and the minds that made it probably didn’t mean harm by it, despite giving it a title that bears no accuracy. They, like author John Green did with The Fault in Our Stars and director Adam Shankman did with A Walk to Remember, just wanted to spin a sick kid story — a modern Romeo & Juliet set in the least sexy place imaginable, with the forces that keep the lovers apart only drawing them closer and kindling the flames of their lust more and more. But where The Fault in Our Stars was functional enough as a romance, where A Walk to Remember was everything a plucked-from-the-early-2000s teen drama could be, and where both were relatively considerate to the condition that afflicted their character(s), Five Feet Apart just… isn’t.
The film is, in its basic form, a jar of mild Tostitos-brand queso on Super Bowl Sunday: someone found it worthy of a taste, warmed it up, sat it down on the counter, and immediately forgot about it amongst the hubbub of the football festivities — only for someone else to grab it and give it a half-assed, 30-second nuke in the microwave in the hopes that the other party-goers would find it satisfying. Five Feet Apart is just like that: artificial and cheesy and lukewarm.
It under-services Richardson to a degree that should be criminal, requires her and Sprouse to lift from their back a shoddy script and bob and weave through Baldoni’s indecisive direction, and asks the viewers to suspend their disbelief so often and for so long that it’s a wonder how anyone will leave the theater without a headache, sore biceps, or a combination of the two.
The irony of Five Feet Apart is this: it’s a tearjerker that elicited from me nary a single glossy eye. All it did was make me want Richardson in better movies, for Sprouse to stop getting type-cast as the brooding nonconformist and grant the man a wider birth for creative interpretation, and for cystic fibrosis patients to have better representation in media.