“No touching.” That’s the golden rule in the adolescent sob fest “Five Feet Apart.” It’s the story of two 17-year-olds falling in love while dealing with the doom and misery of cystic fibrosis. They’re not just fighting raging hormones; they’re fighting death from behind oxygen tubes, surgical masks, med carts and a nurse (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) bent on keeping them apart. “Stay away,” she warns. Cystic fibrosis patients must not come within 6 feet of other “CF-ers” to prevent the spread of deadly germs. But the two rebellious teens choose a closer proximity, hence the title.
Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson, “Support the Girls”) is adorable, smart and likes to be in control, even though her lungs are out of control. Her focus is on her daily regimen of meds and treatments, never taking her eyes off the prize: A lung transplant. While she’s in the hospital for a “tune-up,” in strolls the charming and handsome Will Newman (“Riverdale” heartthrob Cole Sprouse) and his “fluffy” hair. Will has a chip on his shoulder and a lax attitude toward his disease. “It’s just life. It’ll be over before you know it,” he says with typical cynicism. She’s a little country; he’s a little rock ‘n’ roll. Opposites attract. You know the drill. Except this isn’t your normal teen romance: The stakes are much higher. But you know the saying, where there’s a will.
Justin Baldoni (“Jane the Virgin”) directs a script by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis that is surprisingly poignant for its first two acts, thanks mostly to Richardson and Sprouse, who make a cute couple. Eventually, it drifts off into the familiar territory of a sweet teen romance married to an “After-School Special.” It’s a mix of melodrama and rom-com tropes juiced by grand romantic gestures. There’s also a gay BFF, Poe (Moises Arias), another cystic fibrosis patient who steals his every scene.
Richardson is a delight and reminds me of Anna Kendrick. An actress on the rise, she’s far better than material requiring her to smile on cue, pontificate about life, death, mortality, scowl pensively into mirrors and to utter lines like: “I’m living for treatments instead of doing treatments so I can live.”
It all plays out to soft piano notes blatantly telling you when to feel sad, sadder, saddest. The filmmakers don’t stop there. They go to great lengths to toy with your emotions. In one scene, Will and Stella strip down to their underwear and show each other their surgical scars and access ports before pivoting to how much they yearn to kiss. It’s no wonder there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the screening I attended. Except mine. I was far too occupied wondering why the parents are never around. Ditto for hospital security. Does no one see the teenager sitting on the roof with legs dangled over the side? Does no one hear the after-hours birthday dinner of lobster and champagne? The main adult is Gregory’s barb, a nurse with her own motivations for keeping the star-crossed lovers apart.
Full disclosure: I’m far from the target audience, but I love a good teen drama. I even recently indulged in the Luke Perry “90210” marathon. It’s hard to hate on a well-intended movie about life and love, but by the end, we’re neck-deep in Nicholas Sparks territory, with not a lifeline in sight.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Five Feet Apart”
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hébert Gregory.
(PG-13 for thematic elements, language and suggestive material.)
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