‘Five Feet Apart’ (2019) Review: A Sappy But Still Mostly Likable Young Adult Weeper

By Steve Pulaski

Somebody needs to make Haley Lu Richardson an appointment with a chiropractor because Lord knows her back and shoulders have to be sore from carrying the weight of Five Feet Apart, a sappy but still mostly likable young adult weeper. I, for one, still don’t understand why movies about underrepresented, life-threatening diseases need to act as cutesy-mutesy romantic fantasies, but Richardson is so wonderful, proving yet again she’s a charismatic find of an actress, that she helps iron out many of the film’s rough edges — until she can’t or has done all she can do.

I recently learned that the abundance of romantic novels and films that revolve around a person (or people) with potentially terminal illnesses belong to a genre known as “sick lit.” The wave of these works, I suppose, began with the runaway success of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and the subsequent film that ostensibly captivated everyone except myself. In my time, I’ve found only one of these films to be truly great and that’s Everything, Everything, which discarded the gauzy cuteness so many of these films possess and instead humanized a natural, slowburn relationship develop despite being greatly inhibited by the main character’s illness. Most of the genre’s works, including the Bella Thorne-vehicle Midnight Sun and, I suppose, Me Before You, uncomfortably romanticize and simplify the struggles seriously ill individuals face, turning every drug-treatment and vomit-episode into a gateway for sweet nothings.

While Five Feet Apart largely doubles down on convention, it gets by on chemistry and, again, Richardson’s performance. She plays Stella, a hospital-bound high-schooler born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a disease that produces a horrific amount of mucus into her lungs, frequently making it difficult for her respiratory system to function. Much of her day is spent keeping up with experimental drug treatments, and hoping for a new set of lungs that will increase her already low life-expectancy. To pass the time, she makes upbeat YouTube videos for her many followers, similar to Elsie Fisher’s Kayla in Eighth Grade, which keep her chipper despite the moroseness that surrounds her: her supportive sister is dead and her parents’ marriage ended in divorce.

A hurricane comes through her life in the form of Will (Cole Sprouse of Suite Life of Zack and Cody fame), a handsome, CF-stricken teen whose rebellious nature both intrigues yet infuriates Stella, who is also OCD to boot. Will is gifted artistically but moody, resistant to keeping strict timelines on his meds since, why bother? He’s breathing borrowed air anyway. The budding friendship soon metastasizes into something mawkishly romantic, as the two display grand gestures of affection for one another. But a big part of CF is not being able to be in close contact with other individuals with the disease. The golden rule is people with CF must remain at least “six feet apart” from others affected at all times, meaning physical touch, even holding hands, is prohibited. The film’s title is no factual error, but Stella’s proclamation to Will in a later scene that she’ll be the thief who takes something from CF as opposed to all that CF has taken from her. She will subtract a foot and be within five feet from Will when they’re together.

Richardson’s radiant personality and effervescence keeps the film on life-support, so to speak. She cuts through a great deal of forced or corny dialog, even when she’s the one reciting it, and commits to a performance that is as much physical as it is emotional. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Richardson over the last few years. I knew she was something when she was backing up Melissa Rauch in a supporting role in the criminally under-seen comedy, The Bronze, but her exquisite work in Kogonada’s damn-good indie-drama Columbus and last year’s understated dramedy Support the Girlsproved she was more than another young, pretty face in an industry saturated with them. Richardson brings conviction to her role, doing a lion’s weight of the comedic and dramatic heavy-lifting because of the shortcoming in the screenplay.

Such shortcomings are typical of this “sick lit” genre, including unrealistic, grandiose romantic gestures, pithy musings from the main characters masquerading as Earth-shaking statements of insight, and frothy, uninspired mise-en-scène that comes to life as much as stock images do when rendered on a hospital pamphlet. But like The Fault in Our Stars and Midnight Sun, which I confess to liking probably more than I should have, the rotten core where this genre stinks the most stems from how casually it discards the reality of the diseases it so broadly likes to portray. In any reality, Stella and Will, on most given days, would be too mentally and physically exhausted to sit upright and eat, let alone go gallivant on an icy river, and too overwhelmed by medical insurance phone-calls, paperwork, and bills to even worry about making sure they had time for a balloon-laden scavenger hunt. Of course, disbelief must be suspended for anyone looking to enjoy Five Feet Apart, but the glaring unreality becomes more apparent seeing as these diseases are more and more common in the lives of people and their families everywhere.

While not an abject flaw with the film, I was indeed hoping for more commentary on the inability for those diagnosed with CF to come into contact with one another from Will’s perspective. Throughout the film, we hear Stella’s monologues about how necessary physical touch is to the human experience, but we always hear it from her perspective — not Will’s. Will is apparently too cool to admit he’d like to hold Stella’s hand, kiss her on the lips, or even just have her head resting on his chest. So few movies recognize how men crave this sort of romantic, physical affection just like women, and that desire goes far beyond sophomoric notions of carnality and foreplay. A moment does ostensibly present itself at the beginning of the third act, but it comes in the middle of a hysterical moment for Stella, Will, and the hospital staffers that it would not only be inappropriate for Will to bring up this fact, but as unbelievable as the fact that both characters could look so beautiful while enduring something so painful.

In some ways, I’m being too hard on Five Feet Apart, a film I will confess to having enjoyed on some level, regardless of how frivolous. It’s well-meaning and at least contextualizes a disease most people, myself included, will have only previously heard from a helpline/”compensation” commercial on TV whilst washing dishes. If this film gets more people to recognize how strong of an actress Richardson truly is, then its done a service that will render its presence worthy if inserted into a career highlight reel for the 24-year-old young lady with merely ten major film roles under her belt.

Grade: C