Every year there seems to be at least one teen romance drama that captures my attention. In fact, the in the last three years at least one film in this oversaturated subgenre has pleased me as both a casual viewer and critic proving that even grown men can find something satisfying in a corny teen-centered narrative. This year the film that caught my attention is “Five Feet Apart”, a movie that has stirred a bit of pre-release controversy for utilizing a rare genetic disorder to tell its teen love story. “Five Feet Apart” focuses on two cystic fibrosis patients who fall in love despite the safety limitations of their disease which sparked some concerns from disease advocates while others felt just the exposure to the idea of the illness alone made the film and important viewing experience. I was happy to be a part of a local fan event earlier this week as one of the first to see the movie and I gotta tell you it’s not a picture for the faint of heart. But how good is this romantic drama and how well does it blend storytelling with respect for its subject matter? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Five Feet Apart”.
“Five Feet Apart” focuses on Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) a young, optimistic and ambitious cystic fibrosis patient who also happens to have control issues to the point of being obsessive. She meets a fellow CF patient named Will Newman (Cole Sprouse), an aspiring cartoonist who is more rebellious and accepting of his inevitable fate. Being a control freak, Stella finds herself frustrated by Will’s lack of discipline in his treatments and agrees to let him draw her if he sticks to his regimen. The two eventually bond however the general rule is that CF patients must remain at least six feet apart from each other or risk catching each other’s illnesses, something that would affect Stella more as she is high on the lung donor list. As the two come to realize their love for each other they decide to challenge fate and defy the six-foot rule staying only five feet apart as they explore their relationship further. They also experience revelations about how being dealt a poor hand at birth doesn’t have to stop them from enjoying their lives.
“Five Feet Apart” pretty much centers around two specific characters, Haley Lu Richardson’s Stella and Cole Sprouse’s Will. While there are several charming supporting characters the narrative pretty much falls on their shoulders and while not everything about these two patients of cystic fibrosis is unique Richardson and Sprouse make a convincing couple. In fact, their chemistry on screen is downright charming. They play polar opposites, as most teen film lovers do, with Richardson’s Stella being an obsessive control freak and Sprouse’s Will being a rebel who has accepted his inevitable death and wants to experience life in the limited time he has. It’s a nice mix of teenage clichés that make for two honestly relatable characters who work well as a believable couple. I think what made these two fun for me is that they’re both flawed in how they look at their lives and they legitimately learn from each other. Their flaws aren’t limited to their mortality and disease. Will comes to grips with why his survival isn’t just about him while Stella has to work through a bout of survivor’s guilt and understand that she can’t control everything in her life as much as she wants to. Both characters undergo very personal journeys and they do it together making their relationship more than a generic love story. They need each other in order to find peace with the hands they were dealt. It makes “Five Feet Apart” an emotional journey that I found myself heavily invested in for the bulk of its run time because, even when we and the characters know their romance shouldn’t happen, I wanted to see these two find some way to be together. They’re perfect for each other and balance each other out and it’s delightfully frustrating seeing them unable to explore their relationship physically for most of the picture.
While I’m not going to sit here and act like I know anything about what it’s like to go through an illness like cystic fibrosis, what I saw on screen with “Five Feet Apart” gave me a new appreciation for what this disease must be like. I’m sure it doesn’t perfectly capture the disease and its treatments but we do see the patients deal with the effects of their disorder and we feel the pain they go through both physically and emotionally due to the limitations of their health. Even if you go into this movie and dissect the inaccuracies of its portrayal of CF one thing I would hope people appreciate is how it tries to explain that a disorder doesn’t have to control you. Sure it’s important to take the necessary safety precautions, and I’ll get to how the movie handles that in a second, but as an overall story “Five Feet Apart” shares an important lessons for anyone going through anything, whether it’s CF, cancer, clinical depression or any other life-limiting disorder. There are still joys to be found in life even when you’ve been handed a bad situation. Even romance is possible if not in the traditional sense. It’s this core element to the story that had me man crying in the final moments of the film where the audience, and the characters, have to come face to face with reality but learn that life doesn’t end with the disease. It ends when it ends and until then make the most of it.
However, to say this concept isn’t a bit romanticized in “Five Feet Apart” would be an outright lie. I commend the film for being a touching, heartwarming and at some points unapologetically honest look at CF and how love and life can persevere it also presents a dangerous concept of challenging life-protecting measures. A lot of early criticism even before the film was released revolved around the title being “Five Feet Apart” when the rule for CF patients is actually six feet. It’s actually not even recommended they be in the same room. This plays into the narrative with Stella offers to challenge that limit by moving an extra foot closer to Will. It’s a nice gesture, and one that allows them to feel a little closer, but while this movie may make it look cute I can’t help but fear that young CF patients, or any young person with a contagious or deadly disorder, could see a story like this and assume it’s alright and even appropriate to challenge something meant to save their lives. I’m not saying this will inspire the next generation of anti-vaxers, but it does present a fantasy that, in the real world, would be tremendously dangerous for anyone who could be influenced by this film. On the flip side though if you look at it from a more universal perspective the message could also challenge people with less risky or dangerous diseases to defy the limitations of their disorder in a positive way so you see the bind I’m in. I like what it’s trying to say, but I can fully understand where people would find it flawed.
Even if you choose to overlook the romanticizing of a disease for the film there’s also the undeniable formulaic quality of the picture that can make “Five Feet Apart” feel pretty predictable. Like many films, these aspects don’t necessarily make “Five Feet Apart” a bad or unwatchable movie. Still, Everything from how the romance is built to tragic moments, revelations, and the emotional conclusion I saw coming because, well, this is a teen romance drama. Most if not all of them, no matter how unique the idea, follow the same pandering premise. The pacing doesn’t help this film either as at times it feels like it takes too long to get to the point while other moments I wish were more fleshed out. The key here is how well does “Five Feet Apart” utilize the same old clichés while also embracing its own identity? To me, it’s comparable to films like “Before I Fall” and “Every Day”, both teen dramas that I’ve graded rather well in the last two years. Both were cliché, but they worked. They left me wanting more, in a good way, and made me feel inspired, satisfied and even a bit emotional when the credits rolled. “Five Feet Apart” seems to be 2019’s equivalent giving us the generic teen romance but layered with conflicts, worthy life lessons and enough sincerity to overpower the familiarity of its plot devices. There’s a lot in “Five Feet Apart” that we’ve seen before, and some things we haven’t, but it’s hard to knock a film that even at my age of 29 can still draw a tear and effect me enough that I want to experience it all over again.
So when it comes to “Five Feet Apart” you can look at it several ways. On one hand you can see it as an inappropriate attempt to cash in on the tragedy of illness by romanticizing it as a tool for romantic connection and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, I chose to embrace it as something a little more positive. Does it present some rather risky ideas that people suffering from a disease or disorder probably shouldn’t embrace? Yeah. But at the same time it’s a narrative that offer’s hope and utilizes it’s characters and their illness in a way that, to me at least, provides enough respect to the realities of CF while also attempting to inspire anyone with a debilitating sickness that the illness that there are still ways you can experience life even while you’re struggling to survive. That said though, “Five Feet Apart” doesn’t pull a lot of punches and goes to some dark places to drive home some effective tragic moments to sell its story. On top of that, the chemistry between Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse is convincing and charming making for a love story that’s easy to embrace with flawed characters who are relatable and feel very human. It all makes up an emotional roller coaster of a film that has the distinct honor of being one of the few to make me man cry when the credits rolled. For that, it’s a film that I’d highly recommend, as imperfect as it tends to be.