When I heard about Five Feet Apart, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to watch it, regardless what the critics said about it. Firstly, it brings attention to cystic fibrosis — the illness and the challenges experienced, and I was going to support it just for that. Secondly, the lead actors may be young, but they are good. I love Haley Lu Richardson‘s performance in The Edge of Seventeen and Cole Sprouse is one of the reasons I even watch Riverdale. And come on, directed by Justin Baldoni, the dreamy Rafael from Jane the Virgin? It was clear that I was going to be in those plush (hopefully not popcorn-stained) red seats come opening weekend.
This movie is not the first movie about sick teenagers finding love. We have a whole host of that — A Walk to Remember, The Fault in Our Stars, Everything, Everything etc. The difference between those movies and this one is that Five Feet Apart is not just about the romance. The romance is the key defining element in all the other movies I listed. Two teenagers fall in love, one (or two in the case of The Fault in Our Stars) is sick or gets sick, there is a sickness defining moment, then someone dies. I am not the one who came up with the formula, so please don’t shoot the messenger.
Five Feet Apart has the elements of a teen romance, but it is more about figuring out why we live — sickness or no sickness. There is the usual saccharine and mush, accompanied by an immense sense of realness. However, there is nothing about it that makes it stand out as a memorable movie, merely a film to be watched in the moment, and forgotten once it is over.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Justin Baldoni
Written By: Mickey Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is a regular teenager. She has a great group of friends, supportive parents, a YouTube channel and a best friend (Moises Arias) she spends loads of time with but can never touch. That’s because her best friend has cystic fibrosis, and Stella has it too, which means they have to be six feet apart at all times. Stella is used to her life of hospitals, missed travel opportunities because she is down with an infection, surgeries on top of the rigorous medical regime she has to go through. She is fine with all that, until she meets Will (Cole Sprouse) and discovers she wants more.
What piqued my interest the most about this movie is why Justin Baldoni decided this story would be his directorial debut. One of Baldoni’s favorite stories is Romeo and Juliet. He is a hopeless romantic and loves stories that explore such themes. This is what spurred his desire to create this digital show entitled My Last Days, which explored individuals choosing love in the face of a chronic or terminal illness. During the filming of this show, he met a wonderful woman — Claire Wineland — who suffers from cystic fibrosis (CF).
He asked her if she had ever dated anyone with CF, and that is when he found out that people with CF need to stay six feet apart from others with CF because there is a high chance of them contracting the others’ bacteria — hence the title (to find out why it is five feet instead of six you will have to watch the movie). Claire was hired as a consultant on the project but unfortunately passed away before she could see its completion.
We all know of CF, but in a cerebral, detached way. The movie immediately brings us into the world of the illness, smartly using Stella’s YouTube channel as a way to share information without the audience feeling overwhelmed. There is no glamorizing involved. We are exposed to their daily treatments — the mucous, the coughing, the exhaustion in having to maneuver through all this and still keep to a normal routine of exercise and studies. The two actors look thinner and more worn-out than I have ever seen them look, which was intentionally done by Baldoni. Sprouse was told to lose weight to add authenticity to the role.
If I think back to all those other teen movies I mentioned, the illness they have is referred to but for the most part, it plays no role until the climax of the movie, where there is a slip back into the illness. I know that in The Fault in Our Stars the two protagonists have cancer, but I don’t think I could tell you the details, mainly because the movie doesn’t linger on that. The romance and the tragedy of it is what stands out. Five Feet Apart is deliberate in doing the opposite. We spend most of the movie in the confines of the hospital, with the constant reminder of CF in every moment, romance or not.
Strong Young Lead Actors
Love stories of this nature are the hardest type to do. The actors need to have the chemistry and be able to communicate to the audience the authenticity of the love these characters share. And because of the story revolving around CF, there is immense grief involved as well. Richardson is lovely to watch on screen. Yes she is beautiful, but she has something that goes beyond her movie star good looks. There is this amazing energy she has in the portrayal of Stella, who wants to live but isn’t sure how to when CF has dominated her entire life.
Sprouse does the brooding artist very well, and it is easy to see why the two would be drawn to each other. I have a feeling that this movie will do well because of Sprouse alone. Weight loss or not, there is not much you can do to take away from the leading man’s dashing good looks. Thank god he is a good actor and not just another pretty face.
There is so much crying in this movie, however, it never feels overwrought or too much, because the actors do their job. It is not an easy thing to communicate intimacy without even touching the other person, but we feel the chemistry by the truckload from the two despite their five feet apart status.
Death and Grief
Due to the nature of their illness, the two have numerous discussions about death. It reminds the audience about the difference of the lives of these teenagers in comparison to those without CF. Regular teen conversations wouldn’t constantly have death dancing in the periphery. Will wonders about the last breath, and two ponder aloud about what awaits after death. Is death just a step to another life, or is it permanent sleep?
The issue here is that death is not the only thing they need to contend with, it is also the years of having to fight death and how it impacts not only those with CF but the people around them as well. It is easy to say live life, choose love, fight for what you want, but choosing someone to love means involving them in the world of hospitals, sickness, slogging for days you are not sure you have. Wineland mentioned to Baldoni that she didn’t have many friends with CF because she hated having to watch her friends pass away — this is the reality of the illness.
While I do like this movie and appreciate how its creation has spread more awareness about CF, I do think it is playing ball in a genre that feels a bit played-out. There is nothing in particular about the movie I will remember. It feels a bit draggy at moments, and is sometimes so clichéd that I could predict certain plot-points a mile away. Moises Arias as Stella’s best friend Poe is the most surprising part of the movie for me. I remember him from his Disney days, and it is good to see him so grown as an actor. As much as this is Stella’s story, Poe is the heart of the movie. I love their friendship and banter, and this relationship is definitely one of the better aspects of the movie.
My major gripe is how underused Claire Forlani is. Why cast an actress like her when she is barely there? I even thought she wasn’t going to get a speaking role because of how invisible she felt. Tonally, the movie has more despair and harsh reality than it does beauty and light. The romance also feels transient, and while that is realistic with the nature of CF, you know you are watching something that is doomed from the start. Although I appreciate the authenticity the movie wishes to shove down my throat, I wish it gave me something to take away, a moment to save in the filmic moments that reel away in my mind.
For A Walk to Remember, I will always keep with me their performance in the musical together, him helping her satisfy her bucket list, her walk down the aisle to him and many other moments that maybe I will enumerate in another post since I am clearly obsessed. I hold to myself Hazel’s eulogy for Gus in The Fault in Our Stars, and even the ending image of the movie when she lies on the ground looking at the stars to say “Okay” is something striking enough to recall. Five Feet Apart leaves nothing behind, and that perhaps, is the saddest part.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Five Feet Apart? Comment down below!
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