Five Feet Apart (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Make no mistake that the romantic drama “Five Feet Apart,” based on the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, is a fantasy. It is for those who wish to see something romantic on the surface with occasional sad moments involving life and mortality surrounding a disease we do not yet have a cure for. Keeping in mind that the protagonists—patients with cystic fibrosis, one of them infected with the highly resistant bacteria B. cepacia—engage in dangerous practices, like not following protocol of maintaining a distance of six feet and engaging in all sorts of physical contact, it is, for about half the time, a tolerable experience. The leads sell the movie.
Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse play Stella and Will, respectively. Stella is adamant, some would say obsessed, when it comes to keeping up with her regimen so she can live until she gets a new pair of lungs which, in theory, may prolong her life about five years. Will, on the other hand, appears to not care about taking his medication on time, if ever. Of the pair, he is the one infected with the formidable bacteria which makes him ineligible for a lung transplant. Currently, he is participating in a trial that may eliminate B. cepacia. Richardson and Sprouse play their roles with gusto. While I felt their chemistry is forced initially (there is a meet-cute at the neonatal intensive care unit), I found myself invested in their relationship eventually. It may have something to do with how the performers look at one another. They know how to speak with only their eyes.
Elements surrounding the leads function as a sledgehammer to the face. Notice that each time something even remotely sad occurs, you can bet an indie folk song will or has already begun playing in the background in order to escort us on how to feel or what to think. It is unfortunate because there is a convincing drama here that goes beyond young people who are sick coming across romance. Because numerous potential distractions are introduced, like sappy music and cringe-worthy one liners (rubbish like the human touch is almost as important as the air we breathe—I’d like to test that theory), the power of the experience is lessened. Not to mention characters constantly coming up with elaborate surprises that may compromise other patients’ safety.
I found the picture at its most interesting when it is willing to show how it is like to live with cystic fibrosis. It may look ugly or unappealing at times, but showing a person cough up thick mucus, struggling to breathe, and looking extremely ragged is what makes the work human. We look at Stella’s room, for example. While it is well-decorated, it looks lived-in despite her having moved in recently. We get the impression then that she spends the majority of her time in that room. Although she has her computer, cell phone, and handy-dandy to-do list, she must feel so trapped in that space. She FaceTimes with her friends while they are on vacation and we feel every bit of Stella’s jealousy. She puts on a happy face anyway.
“Five Feet Apart” is competently directed by Justin Baldoni, but it is not a work that stands out among medical romantic teen dramas because it fails to offer enough narrative surprises. As clichés pile up like Tetris blocks, it dares to test the patience. The final thirty minutes, for instance, is especially weak. I found the musical chair involving who may live or die to be a grave miscalculation. Instead of feeling invested, I felt like I was being toyed with.