HALEY LU RICHARDSON AND COLE SPROUSE PROVE THAT LOVE AND A BOX OF KLEENEX NEVER HAVE TO BE “FIVE FEET APART”
If you’ve seen one of those “I’m sick, I love you but we can’t be together” movies then you’ve probably seen them all. That includes the newest tearjerker “Five Feet Apart”. This genre of romance has been a perennial favorite at least since the 1970s with “Love Story,” but with the massive success of 2015’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” about two young cancer patients, it kicked off a slew of films to find the next terminal ailment love story: there was leukemia in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” spinal injury in “Me Before You,” autoimmune failure in “Everything, Everything,” and an adverse reaction to sunlight in “Midnight Sun.” The illnesses may be real, but in the movies they can tend to play out as phony or as tear jerky as a Hallmark movie of the week.
While “Five Feet Apart” can feel all too familiar it unexpectedly, feels different too. First time director Justin Baldoni and writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis treats its chosen illness of Cystic Fibrosis, with seriousness and respect. The writers give us a real insight into Cystic Fibrosis, the need to keep “Five Feet Apart” from other patients with CF (as they refer to it in the movie) and the ramifications that comes with the sickness. They detail the daily struggle endured by those with CF without ever getting it too shmaltzy that it turns into a dreary Hallmark movie of the week, that I referenced earlier.
Unlike most of these films that have been adapted to the screen from a New York Times Bestseller. The beginning life for “Five Feet Apart” started as a screenplay before it was turned into a novel, which was released in November 2018. It’s a nice change of direction, where screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who along with director Baldoni are making their feature-film debuts) have an opportunity to develop distinct subplots instead of trying to pack a 500 plus page novel into a single 2 hour picture.
It can also be passed as a “Based On True Events”, as director Justin Baldoni had directed a short documentary about Claire Wineland. A young woman living with Cystic Fibrosis who documented her life on YouTube, and served as a consultant on the film. While the film is not based on her life, the screenwriters have outlined the screenplay that captures the perspective she expressed online, blending a zest for life with humor and an acceptance of death. The late Claire Wineland worked closely with lead actors Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse on perfecting the roles of Cystic Fibrosis patients. Claire passed away in September 2018 after experiencing a stroke right after a successful lung transplant.
In “Five Feet Apart” we follow Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis, she is always in & out of the hospital for her medical scares from the CF. This time she returns for a lengthy stay when she runs into deeper trouble with her health. She’s made a home in the medical center, taking care to respect the Six Feet Only rule, where patients are forced to keep their distance from other CF residents. Into Stella’s life comes Will (Cole Sprouse), another CF patient who’s undergoing a special clinical trial. While Stella is initially resistant to Will’s presence on her floor, she warms up to him, who requests time to draw her portrait in exchange for Stella’s OCD-led organization of his medicine and treatments. While they can’t touch, or even be close, attraction builds between the pair, who try to manage a relationship while dealing with CF. Will is also there helping Stella to cope with past tragedies, while she provides him with an appreciation of life and living it to it’s fullest despite his CF.
The success of 2014’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and William Shakespeare’s (who’s name gets referenced in the film) “Romeo & Juliet”, featuring a pair of young, doomed, star-crossed lovers carrying on a forbidden romance is clearly the inspirations for “Five Feet Apart.” Instead of dealing with the exhaustion of cancer, Baldoni takes viewers into the world of CF. It’s a disease that creates excess mucus in the lungs, making breathing incredibly difficult and infections hard to fight, hence why CF patients need to be “Five Feet Apart” from each other. Both Stella and Will are confined to a special floor within the hospital, creating a neighborhood among other CF patients. It comes with a caring staff and a strict schedule of medication and treatments, which satisfies Stella who is an obsessive-compulsive, who also spends her time completing to do lists and creating vlogs to share her CF journey with the world.
Stella is a complex and dimensional character, and the way she copes is fascinating. She has immersed herself in activities to keep sane, sparking to Will’s strange presence, which challenges her control issues, giving her another project as she pushes him to respect his treatment. Their relationship maybe blocked by distance, but the pair makes a connection through conversation and understanding.
Cole Sprouse who is one half of his twin brother Dylan Sprouse, made his big break in Adam Sandler’s massively successful 1999 comedy “Big Daddy”. Soon enough he was the star of not one but two Disney Channel Original Series “The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody” and “The Suite Life On Deck”. In the past three years Cole Sprouse has regained popularity playing Jughead in the live action take of Archie, Jughead and the gang on the CW’s “RiverDale”. Sprouse portrays Will in a believable and genuine fashion, and to my surprise he is infectiously charming.
The chemistry between the two is there, it helps create to give it’s two lead characters to feel like real people rather than just Romantic movie ideals. It features two charismatic actors, Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, who bring their characters to life. The two bring authenticity, as Richardson and Sprouse give heartfelt, authentic and honest performances as they give us a rich sense of fear as their futures are confronted.
Director Justin Baldoni and the writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis aren’t lacking in imagination. They provide a real sense of the loneliness that comes with long hospital stays and the ways in which patients find ways to make the best of their situations. There is lot to love with “Five Feet Apart”, including the first proper date between Will and Stella. It’s a charming sequence that, despite the pool cue they hold between them for safety, it turns shyly erotic. Despite the occasional cliché “Five Feet Apart” does what other movies in its subgenre often can’t succeed at. It makes us ache for two people to be together.
The film at one point feels like it won’t end unless everyone in the theater is shedding the tears. But there’s something special here, with the production trading insight into the CF world for standard issue YA structures in everlasting love. The convincing chemistry is there as the two stars are successful at their challenging roles by convincingly pulling off their chemistry, by not being able to touch each other and not being able to kiss.
This is this one of this year’s biggest surprises, much like 2018’s spirit jumping romance “Every Day”. While this is the best medical romance since “The Fault In Our Stars”, we can all admit that the last real great medical romance movie was Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams “The Vow” (which happens to be the same director of “Every Day”). The two young leads sets “Five Feet Apart” from other films like it, they deliver by showing a love that is selfless, true and profound.
“Five Feet Apart” has a real voice, and a point of view, and there’s no better actress than Haley Lu Richardson who is phenomenal to embody the attitude that the inspiration Claire Wineland stood for. Richardson can do just about anything, and her performance in “Five Feet Apart” demonstrates a new depth to her range. She brings a knowing soulfulness to every aspect of Stella’s journey, from her grief and rage, to the way she lets herself fall for Will. Baldoni invests real feelings of frustration and attraction into his film. It’s a real shame it wasn’t released on Valentines Day as it would have made a bigger more deserved impact. “Five Feet Apart” is honest, real and will speak to your heart, and in times like these we need more films like it.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)