Back in 2013, actor Justin Baldoni (Jane the Virgin) created a documentary web series called My Last Days, a real-life look at people coping with terminal illness. “I wanted to create something that could really make a difference and impact people in a real way,” Baldoni told Variety in 2016 after his series was picked up for prime-time air by The CW.
The success of that project has landed Baldoni his first feature film directing gig, and though Five Feet Apart doesn’t pack near the heft that Days does (how could it?), the multi-tissue cry-fest echoes similar films like The Fault in Our Stars, Midnight Sun, and Everything, Everything, and thanks to astounding performances by Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, it overcomes the tropes that almost succeed in bogging it down in a pile of sentimental crap.
Richardson stars as Stella, a teenager in treatment for cystic fibrosis. She spends her days and nights living in a hospital room, sequestered from fellow patients because of a severe risk of cross-infection (hence the title). She posts daily videos on YouTube tracking her illness, enjoys Facetime calls with her best friend and fellow patient Poe (Moises Arias), and spends the rest of the time just trying to survive.
Enter Will (Sprouse), a fellow CFer who has just been enrolled in a drug trial in the same hospital; he’s a special case because of an anomalous bacterial infection. Yes, he’s her age. Yes, he’s a boy. And yes, he’s cute. (It would have been a really short movie otherwise.) Naturally he’s a bit of a bad boy (refusing to take his meds when he should), so of course, Stella has to convince him via an impassioned speech that would make The Shawshank Redemption’s Red (Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’) Redding proud. Will agrees, but only if Stella lets him draw her (because, natch, he’s the brooding artist type.)
Fueled by teenage rebellion, love begins to blossom, and it’s followed by an endless barrage of bittersweet, gooey-happy moments, all set to a twee soundtrack. So, no, there’s not a whole lot of groundbreaking stuff going on here, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that none of the middle- and high-school kids in the audience could care less about that. They’re here to get their cry on, and Five Feet Apart is only happy to oblige.
Baldoni does offer up some creative direction along the way, and he should be given at least partial credit for coaxing the sublime performances of his young cast. Richardson, who first arrived on many of our radars via 2016’s ridiculously underrated The Edge of Seventeen, shows the chops of actors twice her age. She throws her heart and soul into Stella in a performance largely informed by the friendship she enjoyed with Claire Wineland, a CF patient who was featured in My Last Days and who passed away last fall. Sprouse, likewise, turns in some heart-wrenching work in a role that could easily have devolved into a cliched bit of teen rebellion. (As it is, he clomps around in combat boots and has a well-placed lock of hair perpetually dangling in front of his eyes.)
Five Feet Apart checks off all the boxes required to be a teen-targeted weepie, even though it’s firmly in the been-there, seen-that category. Still, the cast does manage to save the day, as long as you’re ready for the taste of tears in your popcorn.