Even with Haley Lu Richardson as the film’s secret weapon, Five Feet Apart suffers from the same clichés as most of the decade’s YA romantic dramas while having to stomach the manipulation of trivializing an illness that can be terminal.
The young-adult romantic drama gets more manipulative with every big swing studio have taken at the genre since A Fault in Your Stars. Having every moment in the teenager’s life be life or death, most of the time. This is meant literally. Hollywood goes back to this well over and over because of Fault‘s 300-million-dollar worldwide box office. Which was nearly 40 times the film’s budget. There is so much money being thrown around the John Green’s and Rebecca Albertalli’s of the world. You would think an unknown YA novelist would show up on Shark Tank asking Mr. Wonderful to sponsor their new book. For every Love, Simon, the problem is that you get a big stinking bag of Everything, Everything. Having Haley Lu Richardson as the lead in your film can solve most of your problems. Unfortunately, she can’t cover up Five Feet Apart’s cliche-filled script.
Richardson plays Stella. A 17-year-old patient is stricken with cystic fibrosis. She spends most of her time away from school, in a confined hospital room — in theory anyway. You see, like most residents on the floor, she seems to be given free rein to leave whenever they feel like it. While the medical staff then frequently berates them afterward for doing it. This is easily the least secure infection-control floor in the country.
They slip their masks off while waiting for an elevator. Or inside it. This makes me think there must be some very expensive and specialized germ-free, self-cleaning elevators. If that wasn’t enough, when Stella meets Will (Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse). The typical dreamy, rule-breaking teenager most girls fall for at the age of 17. They both slip off their masks. again. Even though cross-contamination for CF patients is much higher from developing different bugs in each other’s lungs. Although, if you look like these two, you might want to show off your money makers, no matter the consequences.
The film, though, is a movie and is meant for entertainment. Even if you can stomach the manipulation of romanticizing and even trivializing an illness that can be terminal to get you there. Using CF to show the power of love is an interesting tool. Allowing the viewer to watch hormonal teenagers fall in love through communication and mutual respect since they can’t touch, and always keep five feet apart by carrying each side of the same billiards stick (which is referencing a guideline from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on how to lower the risk of cross-infection of two CF patients).
The chemistry between the two leads is apparent. Despite the stereotypical role of Richardson’s Stella as a stick-to-the-rules uptight female. While Sprouse’s Will can be the carefree male who is just looking to live life. Better Call Saul’s Kimberly Hebert Gregory is saddled with the Debbie-downer RN role of keeping these two apart, which is standard in the young-adult drama between star-crossed lovers (she is an RN trying to keep these two from dying, so she gets a pass). The script has nice moments. Though, nothing is nuanced. It also delves into the inevitable what I like to call the “Goose” character (Anthony Edwards’ character from Top Gun). You sense immediately. The script is an exercise in predictability, as you know what will happen to them and when it’s going to happen.
Richardson is a head and shoulders stand-out compared to most of the cast and manages to make her character the only three-dimensional one in the group, raising the level of the material. The film has its moments, some nicely designed scenes (the one on the bridge, in particular) but has several others, including the climactic one at the end of the film, that will have you scratching your head and asking yourself, “Was that really the best time to bring that up?”
Actor Justin Baldoni’s directorial debut has so many typical clichés you can’t see past them, even if you want to argue the film is, at the very least, creating awareness of the issue. The other side will find the film trivializes the disease and depicts the medically dangerous behavior. This is not a documentary when you break it down. Anyone who takes this as scripture needs to blame their high school for sending them out into the world unprepared. This is the “Disney” version of the disease that is a mere device to make young girls cry, so mission accomplished.