"Five Feet Apart" is a ruthless, unstoppable weepie about two teen-age cystic fibrosis patients in love. It will find an audience, if history's any guide and the massive popularity of "The Fault in Our Stars" (cancer; teen love; $307 million in international box office on a $12 million production budget) is a reliable weather vane.
Objectively a lot of the movie's routine, or worse. Each new medical crisis receives an injection on the soundtrack from another hushed ballad with lyrics referring to ships coming in, and humans never giving up, and after a while you wonder how anybody can perform surgery with all that murmuring noise.
But Haley Lu Richardson's in it. She's excellent. In fact, she's reliably excellent. In "Five Feet Apart" she goes 10 rounds with dreckdom, and wins. Scene after scene the movie becomes a two-hour demonstration in the art, craft and mystery of what a performer can do to make you believe, in spite of the things they actually have to say.
Richardson plays Stella, back in the hospital for the first time in six months. Her genetic disorder wreaks havoc with her lungs and her body, though not her spirit. She has a good friend in the same hospital ward, Poe (Moises Arias, humanizing a standard-issue Quippy Gay Sounding Board). Then a new CF patient checks in: handsome, sarcastic, brooding, fluffy-haired and wealthy Will, played by Cole Sprouse, best known as Jughead on "Riverdale."
Meet-cute scenes, as they're called, present a stern test for any screenwriter: How to establish, in a few natural-seeming exchanges of dialogue, an instantaneous blast of attraction, flirtation, huffiness and curiosity? There's no one right answer. "Five Feet Apart" co-writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis dive right in, with barely a muttered "hey" or "hello" before Stella, a self-described obsessive-compulsive list-maker and rule-follower, is calling out Will as "the kind of guy who ignores the rules because that makes you feel in control." Then, seconds later: "We have nothing in common."
Well, time will tell, though time in this case will not heal all wounds or illnesses. Will's complications put him at particular risk, so that he and Stella must maintain a six-foot distance between each other. No physical contact. "No comin' back from this bacteria," he says.
Yet they grow closer, their hearts slowly opening up to one another. First-time feature director Justin Baldoni treats the tidy if increasingly shameless script as sincerely as possible, albeit with as many hackneyed montage sequences as possible. Much of the communication between Stella and Will relies on FaceTime, and we see a great deal of Stella's CF reports on her YouTube channel. The situation can't help but work on your emotions, which means, I guess, mission accomplished. But the fraudulence of the narrative contrivances -- especially once we get to a precarious ice pond for a big, stoooopid climax -- undermines the actors' efforts.
Richardson and Sprouse work well together, though. And the scene where they slowly reveal their surgery scars, in a demure strip-tease, is bound to bring audiences everywhere to a respectful hush, followed by tears. By then "Five Feet Apart" is just getting started in the waterworks department.
The novelization of the screenplay has been out for several months now. It's apt Young Adult material, just like the movie, though "apt" doesn't mean "high-grade" in this instance. If the movie allows Richardson, particularly, a little more clout and greater opportunities, I'm all for it.
'FIVE FEET APART'
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and suggestive material)
Running time: 1:56
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