Courtesy of CBS Films
Teenagers with life altering illnesses or diseases falling in love is a narrative force that’s propelled books and movies atop of the box office and New York Times bestseller list for decades. I walked into “Five Feet Apart” ready to view it in the lens of a “The Fault In Our Stars” intimidator, and left with a gleaming sense of satisfaction. This is a real movie that brings awareness to a horrible disease, and that has to count for something (plus the audible weeping I heard in my theater’s auditorium is a testament to the strong performances on display).
Whereas “FIOS” focused primarily on teens dealing with the struggles of cancer, “Apart” brings light to Cystic Fibrosis, a disease that destroys your lungs and makes it difficult to breath without some type of ventilator on standby. We immediately feel the weight of this disease as “Apart” introduces us to Stella (Haley Lu Richardson - who is a force to be reckoned with) and Will (Cole Sprouse - all grown up from his Disney Channel heyday).
For Stella, her days consist of live streaming her daily routine to her YouTube followers, and Will likes to be a rebel without a cause. As is the case with most romantic dramas, “Apart” rummages through the young adult cliche handbook and copies every ploy in it. You’ve got the snarky pretty boy who is “too cool” for his situation (and even allows his horny friends his room at the hospital to quietly do the deed) and features the overly obsessive girl who can’t decide if she likes the pretty boy or not. It’s a circle that’s repeated in various different cycles of director Justin Baldoni’s routine approach to the material, but the honest performances of both Sprouse and Richardson give “Apart” its competitive advantage over wannabees in the genre.
They both have terrific chemistry and say more with there eyes and body language than any script could allow them. Because of their rare diseases and frail health, the hospital they both reside in has a strict “hands-off” policy, which means they can’t get within more than five feet of each other or risk death. That’s unique in which I’ve never seen a romance film not have that swooning moment where the two leads passionately kiss each other, or, you know, participate in some angsty sex.
But “Five Feet Apart” - where other films need that extra spark to kick into gear - keeps focused on what Will and Stella can do with the time their given. They hold hands at arms length with a pool stick, and Skype from down the hall. Will likes to draw, so he asks if he can sketch Stella, and the weepie moments keep moving in unison.
Though Baldoni can’t resist the urge to infuse the final twenty minutes with about every natural disaster imaginable, or follow the lines of trajectory in terms of cheesy dialogue (“I think you’re perfect” is a line that always makes its way into these scripts) - Richardson and Sprouse manage to keep “Apart” anchored in reality. And when you shed a tear or two towards the end of the film, don’t try to hide the fact you cared about these folks, embrace what the tear stands for.