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Film Review: Five Feet Apart

Sarah Ward

Spirited lead performances improve but can’t save this tear-jerking, formulaic rom-com.
Film Review: Five Feet Apart

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in Five Feet Apart. 

In rom-com weepie Five Feet Apart, a hospital sets the mood. The medical facility that 17-year-old cystic fibrosis patients Stella (Haley Lu Richardson, Support the Girls) and Will (Cole Sprouse, TV’s Riverdale) call home during their extended treatments is a pure fantasy setting – a place of gleaming spaces and homely private suites that’ll look unrecognisable to all but the wealthiest of patients. The film even begins with a scene of subterfuge involving its glossy locale, showing Stella chatting with her school pals about class trips and other age-appropriate gossip, then revealing that they’re in a long-term hospital room. Of course, departing from reality is the whole point of a movie about photogenic teens finding love while facing death. These types of features don’t typically dwell in the drab surroundings of a public hospital filled with multiple beds separated by mere curtains, or, being set within the American healthcare system, burden its star-crossed paramours with wondering about the price of their treatment. 

Here, a nicely appointed space befits a cosy, comforting film that does what illness rarely will: takes the expected, happy route. Stella and Will couldn’t be more different, apart from their shared condition, but her need for order and control means that she can’t sit idly by while he ignores his medical routine. Soon she’s taking charge and he’s brooding with charm, although their illness is the ultimate roadblock. For cystic fibrosis sufferers, especially those with a specific bacterial infection like Will, staying at least six feet away from each other is necessary at all times – to reduce the risk of cross-infection and Stella’s chances of receiving the lung transplant she’s been hoping for for years.

This Justin Baldoni (My Last Days)-directed, Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis-scripted movie is called Five Feet Apart, not Six Feet Apart, with the discrepancy a symbol of what Stella and Will are willing to give up in the name of love. It’s also emblematic of a film that relies upon a gimmick to show that romance can conquer anything. The tearjerker might treat its central condition with respect; however it remains happy to give in to easy sentiments and clumsy clichés everywhere else. A month after rom-com parody Isn’t It Romantic, that includes many of the tropes that feature made a point of satirising, such as the gay best friend (Moises Arias, Monos) whose soul purpose is to offer advice and help push the lead couple along their amorous path. 

Five Feet Apart’s fondness for rom-com formula extends to its protagonists, although they’re assisted by one crucial aspect: the actors behind them. On the page, the characters are thin stereotypes – plucky overachiever with more than one sob story; moody rebel with a medical condition as a cause – and yet Richardson and Sprouse give them more soul than the material perhaps deserves. Their rapport improves the movie’s more mawkish moments, which spring not from melodrama’s focus on emotions and insistence on making viewers feel, but from the forcefulness of filmmakers. With a talent like Richardson, particularly, audiences don’t need to be told how and when to react. As she has already proven in The Edge of Seventeen, Columbus and Support the Girls, her sincere portrayals repeatedly elicit earnest responses. Five Feet Apart mightn’t belong on her highlights reel based on the film alone, but it does on the strength of her performance.

From its warm, almost glowing hues to framing that makes every hospital nook and cranny appear inviting, fantasy was always going to triumph here – over anything genuine, rather than in general. Five Feet Apart is shot and staged like a fond dream that could brighten the target market’s most angst-ridden days. The message: if these two sick teens can make a grab for happiness against all odds, learn crucial life lessons and appreciate truly being alive in the time they have, then so can anyone watching. But dewy-eyed yet hopeful escapism needn’t be so pedestrian in peddling the same basic components, or so shameless in aiming for sobs, sniffles and cheers. Engaging with Richardson and Sprouse still comes naturally; however they’re the bunch of flowers that enlivens a usually dull hospital room rather than Five Feet Apart’s miracle cure.

Rating: 2 ½ stars ★★☆
Five Feet Apart

Director: Justin Baldoni
US, 2019, 116 mins
Release date: March 28
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: M

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay