Though it plays within the very familiar territory of teens romancing amid serious health conditions, Five Feet Apart stands apart as a drama that works a little harder for your tears. While the assembly is of a very familiar formula, in which you can nearly set your watch to every tragic beat, there’s an almost standoffish approach to the film’s tale of two unfortunate souls that find love in the hospital. And through its straight and sentimental approach, there’s a very loose sense of tranquility to help separate this film out from the myriad of other teen romances born from the Boy in the Plastic Bubble template. It’s also a pretty effective tearjerker.
Five Feet Apart, based on the novel of the same name by Rachael Lippincott, follows Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), a 17-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As she explains in the many streams from her hospital room, her condition adds up to not enough lung and way too much mucus. She’s in the hospital for an extended stay for a clinical trial in hopes of tacking an extra few years onto her severely reduced lifespan. Thankfully, she’s not alone, as there are others with the same condition there for the same trial. One is Poe (Moises Arias), a gay teenager who has formed a bond with Stella more steadfast than his many relationships that haven’t panned out. The latest addition to the ward is Will (Cole Sprouse), the bad boy of the wing who isn’t too keen on the trial. Standoffish and depressed about his mortality, he rejects his medications—something Stella can’t stand, especially with the self-admitted OCD tendencies she’s dealing with.
It sounds like a romance will bloom with this unlikely pair, but there’s a catch: those affected with cystic fibrosis cannot be too close to each other or they’ll risk crossinfection. The guidelines of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation are that those infected should keep a six-foot distance. Stella desperately longs for closer contact and makes a stand to go five feet apart, tempting fate and feeling more intimate with Will, even if they have to substitute holding opposite ends of a pool cue for holding hands. This is much to the chagrin of Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), the nurse who strives to make sure the patients keep their distance.
You’re probably already drawing conclusions about the route this tale will take, if not narratively then at least tonally. But the table is set for this drama quite nicely. Consider how the film starts in the hospital, plopping us right into Stella’s world and having her quickly catch us up. She gives us the rundown on her condition, her meds, the rules, and the devices to aid in her breathing. She’s open about all this, but it’ll take some time to be more honest about her tragic past—as it will for the rest of the characters, who all bring plenty of baggage to the ward.
The premise is rather strong for the subject it touches upon. Consider how both Stella and Will approach their diagnosis: Stella has lived with it for long enough and read up enough on death to have become quite comfortable with the fact that she is even alive, slowly learning not to fear the fact that she may not make it to middle age. Will, however, doesn’t accept it as well, lashing out through morbid drawings and believing death is only the end, reasoning that he and Stella drew the short straw in life.
It’s just unfortunate that the film never fully capitalizes on this aspect of Stella and Will trying to fight off the fears that they’re on borrowed time and that they could die any day. But then, perhaps they shouldn’t dwell on this for too long. Most of the dialogue is treated rather clinically, with the teenagers being open and direct with what they say and mean. Most of the banter between the two leads goes down a simple path, to the point where you could almost base a drinking game on how many times Will genuinely uses the line “I love you” to say how he feels about Stella. In this respect, it’s somewhat relatable—even if Stella has read up on theories about coming to terms with death, there’s doubt she could expand on the concept past the basic acceptance that there must be something more when the big sleep comes.
While Five Feet Apart does weave itself within the cozy design of similar films, it creates a comfy enough atmosphere that I have to admit by the time we arrived at the heartfelt ending in which (no spoilers) happiness and sadness converge, there was a small lump in my throat. I took note of how the couple behind me, who had balked at Stella and Will’s mistakes like they were watching a bad horror movie, soon found themselves weepy at the bittersweet farewell the picture leaves us with. And there were plenty of other sniffles to be had in that theater. Despite the characters being in need of some better dialogue, Five Feet Apart sufficiently serves its purpose as a date movie designed for your date to drench your shoulder.