A soft hallmark-esque montage introduced the main subject for this film, the importance of touch and human connection, via home videos and a pleasant voice-over by our protagonist. Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), vlogger, coder, OCD teen and, to the dismay of viewers, hospital-ridden cystic fibrosis patient, opens up the world of CF to her friends, the internet, and audience alike.
It doesn’t take long for tall, dark, and handsome Will (Cole Sprouse) to enter the scene — a potential love interest? Yes. It’s what we’re all here for, we knew it was coming, and he has arrived. And just as quickly as they were introduced, the harrows of sick-kid romance is cast upon these star-crossed lovers as they weave through teen love, but as the rules state, six feet apart. Their conflicting perspectives on life, hopeful and downtrodden, challenge one another to approach life from every facet despite living on “borrowed air.” It’s a good start but feels a bit like a story we’ve heard before (see: The Fault in Our Stars, with Riverdale’s Jughead).
The chemistry, however, between Stella and Will, drives the story through any cheap line, eye roll plot point, and stereotyped portrayal of the tough-love nurse Barbara, and gay best friend Poe. And, despite some hiccups, even the supporting characters have some moments that make them worth the while, providing comic relief and a semblance of grounding in reality.
The third act undoubtedly gets hokey, but theatergoers are so enraptured in the relationships by this point that inherently cringeworthy, potentially infuriating, plot points are softened to a mere, “huh, interesting.” It’s a roller coaster to which a predictable second act has not alluded.
Say what you will about the trite story, getting to the nitty-gritty: there is an acute attention to detail in this production, under-appreciated and often overlooked. The small things such as the room decor, down to the fact that Will’s bed is perpetually unmade and Stella’s is hospital cornered in her absence. The most nonchalant encounters with patients and guests, the patients are carefully interspersed, always six feet apart. To add a smidge of flavor, I am, and will always be, a sucker for a soundtrack. The argument can be said that if you notice the soundtrack, it’s already too distracting. The view I take is: if it makes me feel what the director wants me to feel, then that is a welcomed enhancement. Perhaps that’s the 21st-century voiding humanity of organic emotion? But such is life; add salt to taste, as long as it has a cohesive beat.
The true spice of life, however, is Haley Lu Richardson. The young star is no stranger to the screen, having been in features including ‘Operation Finale,’ ‘Support the Girls,’ and ‘Edge of Seventeen’ to name a few, but we have never seen her like this. This spark plug breathes life into a character unparalleled in films of the same vein. She is subtle, raw, yet kind, and her portrayal of emotion from love, loss, and everything in between, all from the mindset of a teenage female, are spot on. May I be so bold to say this could be a career-turning role for the young actress and we should expect to see only bigger and brighter things from her in the (hopefully near) future.
At the end of the day, the tale is one that needs to be heard. Yes, we’ve seen romance. We’ve seen drama. We’ve seen terminally ill. But what we as an audience haven’t seen is a story that sheds light and digs deep into the struggles posed specifically by cystic fibrosis— a phenomenally brutal disease that is widely misunderstood or unknown. First-time director Justin Baldoni has marvelously captured a relationship that will engage viewers and educate us on a much-needed conversation with finesse and unapologetic truth. He nailed the genre on the head and ripped your heart out while doing it.
Thoroughly enjoyable, solid directorial debut, but one too many predictable and “oh, come on” moments hold it back to a confident B+.
Five Feet Apart Review