Yet another teen weepie in the vein of “The Fault in Our Stars” and its many imitators, “Five Feet Apart” is about two young cystic fibrosis patients who fall in love during hospitalization, even though their romance is stymied by the fact that the rules forbid them coming within six feet of one another because of the danger of potentially fatal cross-infection.
Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will Newman (Cole Sprouse) are the would-be couple. She’s undergoing treatment for an infection; he’s participating in a drug trial that might deal with a serious lung condition. Initially they cross swords: she’s a self-confessed control freak, obsessively following the regimen and demanding that others do likewise, while he’s a cartoon-drawing rebel, fatalistically ignoring the rules whenever he can, much to the distress of both Stella and their helicopter nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). But of course opposites attract, and the two inevitably are charmed by one another.
There’s a third patient who’s an important cog in the plot machinery, an energetic gay kid named Poe (Moises Arias), who’s insistently prodding Stella to loosen up a bit, even as she retorts that he has been pushing away partners out of fear of commitment. He’ll become an important part in his friends’ eventual determination to get closer—one foot closer, as Stella decides, using a pool cue as a measuring stick—which will both stretch the rule while maintaining safety. In the process, however, a secret from Stella’s past will come into play that pushes her increasingly toward recklessness in her relationship with Will.
In the end, of course, the sad issue in a picture like “Five Feet Apart” is whether any of the characters are going to wind up, to put it crassly, six feet under. Unfortunately, when the answer comes, it poses no great surprise, since the person has been pretty much identified from the beginning for anyone who has studied screenwriting 101.
Still, scripters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis stir the pot energetically in the final reel, fashioning climax after climax that take the movie from the realm of the merely implausible to the positively absurd in an effort to roil the audience’s emotions. The picture closes, as it begins, with excerpts from a video blog emphasizing the importance of human touch. But whether after all the frantic twists of the last act it’s more likely to affect a viewer’s funnybone than heartstrings is an open question.
Still, those inclined to be moved by such stories—teen girls are the obvious targets, but others may be similarly affected—will find the movie a competent example of the genre. Though director Justin Baldoni is way too prone to follow one of Hollywood’s most appalling rules—when in doubt, throw in another musical montage!—he stages the action decently enough, and after an opening reel in which he indulges excessively in squirm-inducing handheld camerawork, cinematographer Frank G. Demarco settles down and offers attractive widescreen visuals. The picture could use a bit of tightening—it runs nearly two hours—but overall Angela M. Cantanzare’s editing is smooth enough.
As to the performances, Richardson verges on the manic, but Sprouse is nicely laid-back, and Arias balances humor and poignancy. The only other member of the cast who stands out is Gregory, who brings the necessary earth-mother note of hyper-concern for her charges to Nurse Barb. Olivia Spencer couldn’t have done it better.
“Five Feet Apart” is suitable only for those ready to tear up over soap operas about teens with deadly ailments. Others are advised to skip this weepy hospital visit.