July 19, 2019

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Teen romance has dollops of melodrama

Young adult flick about life with cystic fibrosis is a tear-jerker

An often touching story about not touching, this teen romantic drama is a bit of a muddle. Even with engaging lead performances from Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse and a well-intentioned depiction of chronic illness, Five Feet Apart’s sense of realness is jeopardized by the script’s calculated use of YA tropes.

The title comes from a real-life medical issue. It’s recommended that people living with cystic fibrosis (CF) stay two metres away from others with CF, to avoid dangerous cross-infections.

For 17-year-old Stella (Richardson, known for Support the Girls and Edge of Seventeen), there’s something particularly cruel about the fact that the friends who most understand her situation are the ones she can’t touch, hold or hug.

Stella is sunny, life-affirming and rule-abiding. She’s a two-list kind of girl: she has a master list and a daily list, and nothing makes her happier than crossing things off.

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An often touching story about not touching, this teen romantic drama is a bit of a muddle. Even with engaging lead performances from Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse and a well-intentioned depiction of chronic illness, Five Feet Apart’s sense of realness is jeopardized by the script’s calculated use of YA tropes.

The title comes from a real-life medical issue. It’s recommended that people living with cystic fibrosis (CF) stay two metres away from others with CF, to avoid dangerous cross-infections.

For 17-year-old Stella (Richardson, known for Support the Girls and Edge of Seventeen), there’s something particularly cruel about the fact that the friends who most understand her situation are the ones she can’t touch, hold or hug.

Stella is sunny, life-affirming and rule-abiding. She’s a two-list kind of girl: she has a master list and a daily list, and nothing makes her happier than crossing things off.

Haley Lu Richardson (left) and Cole Sprouse are Stella and Will, who meet in a hospital. She is a by-the-book kind of girl, while he is a bad boy. (Patti Perret / CBS Films)

Haley Lu Richardson (left) and Cole Sprouse are Stella and Will, who meet in a hospital. She is a by-the-book kind of girl, while he is a bad boy. (Patti Perret / CBS Films)

In hospital for "a tune-up," as she cheerfully tells her social media followers, she has reconnected with Poe (Moises Arias, doing what he can with the clichés of "the gay best friend" character). She also encounters a new patient, Will (played by Sprouse, one-time twin from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and currently "Hot Jughead" on Riverdale).

Will is a classic bad boy with a bad attitude who is fighting a particularly bad bacterial infection. With little hope for his future, he has become cynical and reckless. "It’s just life," he tells Stella. "It’ll be over before you know it."

Will and Stella’s first meeting is predictably prickly and difficult, but these opposites inevitably attract.

To the accompaniment of an album’s worth of wistful pop songs, the two connect emotionally, even as Stella uses a five-foot pool cue to keep them apart physically. Will starts to care about life, just as Stella learns to take risks.

There’s a tricky dynamic at work here. Scripters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis are concerned about Stella and Will’s particular situation and its medical complications, but they also seem to be cannily exploiting what could be called "the Twilight effect" — that moment when about a zillion teenagers following the romance of Bella and her vampire learned that chaste yearning had an erotic charge that pop culture’s usual sexual free-for-all couldn’t replicate.

Haley Lu Richardson plays Stella, who has cystic fibrosis, which is dealt with in a realistic way. (Eone)

Haley Lu Richardson plays Stella, who has cystic fibrosis, which is dealt with in a realistic way. (Eone)

The emotional effects are sometimes contrived, but they are still effective. As with many YA movies and books — there is a novel version of FFA, but it’s adapted from the screenplay, rather than the other way round — Five Feet Apart is an unabashed weepie.

The movie also manages a laudable level of realism about illness. Director Justin Baldoni was inspired by his friendship with YouTuber Claire Wineland, a young woman who vlogged about her experiences living with CF and died from complications resulting from a lung transplant in September 2018. Baldoni tries to demystify the condition, being upfront about Stella and Will’s spitting and coughing, their gastro-tubes and oxygen tanks and complicated medication regimens.

Too bad, then, that the script engineers an overly melodramatic ending, in which Stella acts out of character in a particularly aggravating way (though I might be speaking here as a worried parent rather than a lovesick teenager).

Five Feet Apart is clearly aspiring to reach the heights of recent projects like John Greene’s The Fault in Our Stars, but these kind of narrative stumbles keep it grounded.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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