I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Oh hey it’s this year’s tragic-teen romance, about beautiful sensitive adolescents falling in love while dying prettily. The disease of the week this time out is — *spins the wheel of misfortune* — cystic fibrosis, the genetic condition that, among other horrors but most notably, causes one’s lungs to produce prodigious amounts of mucous and leads to frequent life-threatening lung infections. As we will learn in this latest would-be weepy/gentle medical lesson, CF sufferers can often look and seem quite healthy, but their lives are punctuated by extended hospital stays when symptoms flare up or one of those infections strikes.
And so it is with 17-year-old Stella (Haley Lu Richardson: Split, The Edge of Seventeen). She is stuck in a hospital as Five Feet Apart opens, and she’s clearly been there a while: she has made herself quite at home in her room. Her space is festooned with posters and artwork by friends and family, and brightened up with fairy lights; her bed is covered in her own colorful sheets and blankets, not the dreary institutional ones. (This may be the first example of the tragic-teen romance in which the hospital is as pretty as the patients.) She may have a disease that could kill her at any moment, and probably will before she’s 40, but she’s still chipper as hell, like in her YouTube diary entries in which she documents her disease and her treatment: dozens of pills every day; regular episodes of hacking up all that phlegm; etc. Her best friend, Poe (Moises Arias: Pitch Perfect 3, Ben-Hur), another CF kid, is right across the hall, and they do have fun. Stella is sweet and cute, but also tough and resilient, and a pleasure to spend time with; Richardson is genuinely charming.
And then Will (Cole Sprouse: TV’s Riverdale, The Master of Disguise) arrives. He’s a floppy-haired bad boy–slash–secretly vulnerable artist, and he’s in for treatment of bug that is particularly virulent for CF patients. He initially rubs Stella the wrong way for reasons that aren’t at all clear in this first screenplay from writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis*, except, perhaps, to keep the movie from rushing too quickly into their romance. Soon enough, though, it’s all hearts and tummies aflutter… except, as two people with CF, they cannot touch, should not even get within six feet of each other, because of the high possibility of them cross-infecting each other’s uniquely susceptible lungs with their uniquely damaging viruses.
So, then, Five Feet Apart — the first feature from actor-turned-director Justin Baldoni — is an unusually chaste teen romance: no kissing, no sex, nothing more than heartfelt conversations and glances of longing and despair. And that’s fine, and makes for an agreeable change from the overly sexed-up teens we often get onscreen. But while a different sort of teen romance in which other forces (such as religion) push the young lovers toward chastity might work in elements of tender will-they, won’t-they suspense, Apart disconcertingly does something similar. It’s meant to be a moment of small triumph for Stella, who is (quite understandably) OCD about her treatments and keeping up with her meds regime, that she loosens up a little bit and decides to “take back a foot” from the absolutely essential life-and-death rules that keep her alive, and declares that she and Will could remain merely five feet apart. (One suspects this notion of hers was driven more by a desire for an alliterative title for the movie than anything else. Or perhaps because Six Feet Apart is too reminiscent of “six feet under.”) It seems rather reckless, both within the story itself as well as the larger context the movie exists in, the one in which it hopes to engage in some valuable awareness-raising about cystic fibrosis (which is certainly does achieve). It also rather unfairly casts kindly Nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory: I Think I Love My Wife) in the role of nominal villain here, for her insistence on her CF patients following the necessarily strict rules; sequences of Stella and Will evading her watchful eye are uncomfortable in a way they shouldn’t be, and not clever or funny like they want to be. It may be unlikely that this movie will inspire CF patients to wild romantic abandon with their fellow sufferers, but it does undercut the underappreciated medical realities the movie wants to share.
A bigger problem is how events turn a tad ridiculous in the finale, ramping up the melodrama as if the fact of Stella and Will’s serious illness wasn’t dramatic and devastating enough. Still, as tragic-teen romances go, Five Feet Apart is inoffensive fluff that will open some eyes to a genetic condition that hasn’t gotten much pop-culture exposure. (This is much better than last year’s Midnight Sun, though nowhere near as involving as 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars.) I just wish a teen girl didn’t need to be dying to be considered worthy of getting her own movie.
*This movie is not based on a YA novel, but one now exists, written by by Rachael Lippincott, based on Daughtry and Iaconis’s screenplay. Behold the YA machine at work. Though anything that gets kids to read, right?