The Fault in Our Stars revived a morbid sub-genre five years ago, and ever since then dying teens falling in love has become something of an expectation in all mediums of young adult fiction. Five Feet Apart, the feature debut from Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni, keeps the hospital romance alive and kicking thanks to the chemistry of its leads.
Inpatient Stella has cystic fibrosis and is taking part in a drug trial with the hopes of a future lung transplant. The genetic disorder, which causes thick layers of mucus to build up in the lungs, requires constant treatment – a daily reality for “CFers” as the characters call themselves. We witness frequent pill trays, vibrating jackets to bring up phlegm, with masks and latex gloves featured in every shot; Five Feet Apart brings awareness to a lesser-known condition that makes it difficult for millions across the world to breathe.
Fellow CFer Poe (Moises Arias) is Stella’s gay best friend. Their relationship is touching and convincing, but it can’t help but feel slightly tokenistic as he supports our straight cis female protagonist in her romantic endeavours. Haley Lu Richardson offers a nuanced performance in what easily could have been a caricature. Stella is simultaneously compulsive and disciplined, determined to survive. Richardson approaches Stella’s OCD tendencies with care, as she flits between apple-cheeked positivity and forced hope. She tempers her perennially bubbly demeanour with a heavy sense of obligation to survive for those that love her.
New boy on the ward Will (Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse) is entirely the opposite. He is guarded against hope and breaks all the rules with a smouldering sarcastic wit. Their immediate attraction begins with Stella’s frustration at his reluctance to take the treatment seriously, insisting they do it together so she can monitor him. The catch in this modern romance is that our two lovers can’t get within six feet of each other, unless they want to risk cross-infection and threaten their chances of new lungs.
Maternal head nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) has seen it all before, and it’s touching to note her growing attachment to the kids who have extended stays in CF wards. She portrays Barb with heart and a respect for medical professionals who have no choice but to take the stress and emotion of their work home with them. Equally, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco must be recognised for keeping the hospital setting from getting too claustrophobic, his fluid camera makes the personal rooms and halls feel airy and less clinical and intimidating.
It’s clear that everyone behind this film has approached it with real love and respect for the story, the chemistry between Richardson and Sprouse is simply magnetic and an anchor in this otherwise clichéd love story. Some scenes prove truly affecting when the script begins to recognize the human side to the effects CF has on its patients, and there is a nuance to be found in the films calmer moments. However, its third act features a pile-up of twists that can be quite jarring, squeezing as much melodrama as possible into its final 30 minutes.
Somehow, Five Feet Apart‘s sincerity cancels out its formulaic predictability. Another stunning performance from rising star Richardson injects this drama with heaps of heart, and her chemistry with Sprouse is undeniable. It is an enjoyable tear-jerker that reminds the audience of some important truths, and you’ll find yourself reaching to hug your loved ones because you should be grateful that you can. Baldoni’s debut is a heart-wrenching call to action to fully own the time we’ve borrowed from the hand that life has dealt us.
Five Feet Apart is available on DVD and Digital now.
by Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing in Bath. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Much Ado About Cinema, Reel Honey, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm