Five Feet Apart wants to be another Walk to Remember or The Fault in Our Stars-type look at romance bound by illness, and it has some shining moments. But the feature directorial debut from Justin Baldoni, best known for his role on Jane the Virgin and directing the documentary series My Last Days, falls short, especially in its script. The charm of the cast might be enough to make it a hit. but the story doesn’t resonate.
The film follows the heartbreaking love story of two teenagers, both fighting a terrible disease that in a tragically (vaguely Shakespearean way), links them together while it yet keeps them apart. Both have cystic fibrosis, a brutal genetic disease that causes severe mucus buildup in the lungs and other organs. Due to the nature of the disease, and the wide variety of strains that a person genetically inclined for the disease can develop, people living with cystic fibrosis are kept to a rule that they must maintain at least 6 feet from others who also have it at all times, so as to not spread their own infection or become infected with another strain of the bacteria. Yes, the title says 5 feet, and to prevent any spoilers, let’s just say this discrepancy is explained in the film.
The incredible performance by Haley Lu Richardson, who portrays the film’s protagonist, Stella, keeps things afloat, but barely. On a streak with roles consistently growing in complexity over the past few years, this is Richardson’s most poignant to date. In this film, she shows a beautifully wide range of emotions, keeping the audience enthralled in even in the most clichéd of moments. She is charming, and honest, and has proven that she's a force to be reckoned with in a driving role.
Cole Sprouse, as love interest Will, brings with him some of the same brooding characteristics that have made his portrayal of the Jughead Jones character in the CW’s extremely popular Riverdale so intriguing to young fans. While this is probably his strongest role to date as well, his standoffish, detached approach to the character, when paired with the amount of punch Richardson puts into every moment she is on-screen, makes his performance at times flat and one-note. Still, he manages a couple powerful moments of his own, and the duo's natural charisma plays into their chemistry onscreen.
The film also boasts a strong supporting cast. Moises Arias’ turn in the role of Poe is fun, and breathes some life into what could have easily been a relatively stock portrayal of the gay best friend. Another quiet standout is Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Nurse Barb, the teenager’s caretaker and main source of support. Gregory effortlessly evokes unconditional love dripping in emotional pain and walks the line between mother, friend and disciplinarian in such a quiet, subdued way (as many real-life nurses do), that one may not even notice the serious amount of work she is putting into her performance.
While Justin Baldoni’s lengthy history as an actor clearly benefitted his directorial decisions while working with his cast, his naivete in other aspects shows. The visual style of the film is generally good, but there are moments missed to express the aching distance that kept these young lovers apart. The pacing of the film drags at times, and while some of the key dramatic moments are effective, others fall flat. Still, for a first-time director, Baldoni shows serious promise.
Regardless of the caliber of the talent involved, a film can only be as good as its script, which is where Five Feet Apart is really lacking. The film relies on far too many clichés. The subject of the film -cystic fibrosis- is actually sort of original, but even if you know nothing nothing else about it, this movie will feel familiar. The characters themselves are written too basic and thin, especially in the supporting roles, and, if not for the serious work of the actors, they’d be nothing more than stereotypes. It seems the writers sacrificed story progression for the sake of cheesy romantic stuff we’ve all seen before. Stella’s sharp turn from suffering patient to young woman in love feels unearned, as if somewhere, a crucial moment was cut for time. Though the scenes between Stella and Will feel real and organic, their chemistry doesn’t fill the silence enough.