You know what you’ll be getting before even purchasing a ticket to a film about cancer or terminal illness. There will be plenty of discussions concerning the illness itself and how it affects everyone around it; there will be plenty of jokes about having the illness; there will be a death of a pivotal character that will help someone in the film find some sort of truth; the third act will be, in a lot of ways, bittersweet; and there will be lots of tears from the viewing audience. Five Feet Apart doesn’t back away from any of these tropes, but it still manages to build upon them in a creative way that the film doesn’t feel so much like just another teen cancer movie, but a song for life and the need we all have for companionship, love and family.
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a disease that causes the difficulty breathing and excessive coughing due to the build-up of mucus and constant infection. During her current stay in the hospital as she waits for a pair of lungs to become available for transplant, Stella meets Will (Cole Sprouse), another CF patient with a tougher form of the disease. Due to the fact that their individual bacterial strains can be transferred through saliva, patients suffering from CF are urged to stay at least six feet away from other CF patients. As Stella and Will begin to grow a deeper bond with one another than either was expecting, they decide to break that rule and take back just one foot, hence the title.
For a movie like Five Feet Apart to work, you need a pair of strong leads with a bounty of chemistry and a clear understanding of how to handle the heavy material and keep the tender atmosphere from becoming schmaltzy.
Richardson is terrific. Her sense of humor, humility and the way she’s able to portray the depth of her character is beautifully orchestrated. There isn’t a moment when you wonder whether Stella is real; she just is. I felt every ounce of pain, regret and joy displayed on screen. She’s like a new friend you instantly connect with. Natural and caring, she never tries to exploit the situation; she is who she is and nothing more. Every decision, from her ecstatic OCD issues about her (and everyone else’s) treatment regiment, to her sudden changes in mood and appreciation for life make the film flow from smart drama to morose tearjerker without force.
Sprouse, on the other hand, doesn’t connect quite as well. His performance is fine, but compared to Richardson’s fire, the flames of intensity are doused dramatically. He tends to float through the film rather than drive it. His character is harder to pin down; in some ways, this is expected, as until he meets Stella, he doesn’t care much about doing what’s necessary to survive. And he does a good job portraying that side of his personality. It’s the sensibility and vigor missing from his eyes that keep the character from fully forming. There are moments when the spark is ignited and we finally see the love, joy and pain resting in the shallows of his decisions, but it isn’t enough to pull you in the same way Richardson is capable of doing.
This imbalance causes a slight problem between the two as they bond throughout the film. I love the idea that one is fire and one is ice, complimenting one another and finding love based on that dichotomy. However, I never felt the pair truly connected the way director Justin Baldoni needed for the film to be the powerful, bittersweet film it’s aiming to be. Yes, the final scenes will most definitely rip at your heartstrings in some amazing ways, but this is more despite Sprouse than because of him. The reason the third act resonates so tremendously well lies solely in Richardson’s ability to draw you in. Even in the most desperate of scenes, Sprouse stays rather flat in his ability to raise the scene’s tension.
I actually found more chemistry between Stella and her best friend, Poe (Moises Arias), the supportive best friend bordering on cliché gay bestie. The way the two play off one another is pure and without conjecture. There’s no denying the love they have for each other as friends and family. In fact, now that I think of it, Arias has better chemistry with Sprouse as well, able to bounce a soft tenderness off one another, allowing him to open up further than he’d probably be willing to go otherwise. It may be what helps Sprouse spread his wings as far as he can with Richardson. I have to wonder: where would the chemistry be without Arias to liven the pair up?
Underlying the trio’s performances is the beautiful writing. Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis paint a portrait of life, love and the pain that comes with the roadblock of being unable to do certain things because it may kill you even faster. At what lengths will you go to keep yourself alive, and at what point do you find the strength to simply live? Stella says at one point that she’s been spending the last year living for her treatments instead of doing the treatments to live, and that speaks volumes to her character, as well as for the film itself.
One of the greatest ideas the movie offers is using a pool cue, generally around 5 feet in length, to make sure Stella and Will stay that far apart as they spend time together. It’s a cute idea that shows how determined they are to be with one another, but do so in the safest way possible.
Five Feet Apart is a pure love story. It’s central theme is cancer and how young people born with a very specific illness must cope with not only their fate, but the tragedy that comes along with it. However, the core, the beating heart, is how these three characters pull for each other to survive. More to the point, it’s about how love can pull you forward and, in a way, keep you alive. The chemistry between the two leads may not be entirely perfect, but everything else, supported by the strength of Richardson’s performance, makes the film and the message resonate in a tremendous, emotional symphony.
My Grade: A-
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