The latest entry in the terminal-illness teen romance canon — shockingly, not based on a YA novel, although the screenplay became the basis for a novelization — “Five Feet Apart” is like a new strand of the same formulaic disease, only this time featuring a set of specific symptoms that make physical contact between the sick lovers literally fatal. (Call it “The Fault in Our Lungs.”)
Within this sub-genre of doomed adolescent relationships, “Five Feet Apart” is more John Green-generic than “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”-clever. What “Five Feet Apart” — the directorial debut of “Jane the Virgin” actor Justin Baldoni, from a screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis — has going for it is how it uses the mechanics of the condition at its center as the basis for the plot, which saves it from being a copy-paste refurbishing of other, similar entries.
Hospital-bound Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), a spirited high-schooler born with cystic fibrosis (CF), devises her every step in relation to her low-life-expectancy respiratory affliction that causes her body to produce massive quantities of mucus in her lungs. Rearranging her pills on her medical cart daily is self-imposed standard protocol, as is sharing hopeful reassurance on her YouTube channel, à la Elsie Fisher’s character in “Eighth Grade.” Disruption soon comes in the form of handsomely cynical, artistically minded, flawlessly haired, CF-affected stud Will (Cole Sprouse, “Riverdale”).
Interest is mutual, and what begins as a begrudging friendship for Stella to ensure Will follows the rules to keep himself alive (he’s a patient on clinical trials for a new treatment) evolves into a mawkish love affair with grand and uncalled-for displays of affection. The cruel caveat here is that CF patients can come into contact with anyone else but must remain six feet apart from each other to prevent catching lethal bacteria. Exchanging saliva would mean a non-metaphorical kiss of death. To be clear, the title is not a factual error but a reference to Stella’s subtle defiance in the last act of this unpleasantly lengthy tearjerker.
Cutting through the thick curtain of recycled lovey-dovey remarks and the proficiently dull craftsmanship of the production, Richardson’s radiant charisma acts as a lifeline. One would be hard-pressed to find a moment where she is not earnestly committed to the role’s convincingly bittersweet shtick.
The young actress, whose best work to date is in Kogonada’s sublime indie drama “Columbus” and as an unwaveringly enthusiastic waitress in last year’s “Support the Girls,” gets her mainstream shot here and is as winsome as “Five Feet Apart” allows. Even when deep in the dark valley of tired platitudes and underdeveloped side plots about deceased relatives, Richardson is a star. Casting her in anything — even this — earns that project instant points for her likability and understated fragility.
Thanks to the sheer volume of movies where young people are condemned to untimely deaths, morbid humor is no longer a rarity that offsets their tone, but a commonplace ingredient eroded with every use. “Five Feet Apart” laughs at mortality just as much as its cinematic forebears, but that does little to elevate the unremarkable material that punches every beat with boldface sentimentality, demanding the viewers’ tears without doing much to earn them aside from sad-music montages. In Baldoni’s trope-heavy two-hour drama, humor doesn’t come from the “how funny we might die soon” gags, but via Colombian-American character actor Moisés Arias (recently seen in the Sundance-winner “Monos”), the one irreproachable delight in this ordeal.
Arias’ character Poe, Stella’s Latino gay bestie also battling CF, is not only a scene-stealer (dashing off stereotypically sassy lines with genuine matter-of-factness) but also the only person who verbalizes the very real concern of how anyone can afford to pay for the prolonged hospital stays and copious amounts of medication needed from birth. His story is tremendously more in tune with the world as it is than the white lovebirds in the foreground. Stella is likely only his friend because they share a life-threatening ailment, not because they belong to the same socio-economic circles.
That brings to mind the evident truth that people of color tend to exist only in the periphery of romantic offerings. In this case, the only other non-white cast member with any discernible personality is Kimberly Hebert Gregory (“Vice Principals”) as Nurse Barb, who surely cares about the teens but is also probably afraid of losing her job if they have a killer make-out session. At least the film’s thematic cousin “Everything, Everything” had interracial sweethearts as tragic protagonists. If you are already following most other preconceived elements, why not infuse your take with diversity beyond the supporting roles?
Tactile-prohibitions between CF sufferers are exploited in “Five Feet Apart” for all their yearning potential, which is actually enhanced here with the availability of technology that enables communication from a distance. The concept of two lovers who can’t caress each other, experience sexual intimacy, or express affection physically is ripe for heartbreaking fiction, so a picture like this was bound to happen. Fortunately, the screenwriters don’t dilute the severity of the genetic disorder despite the high gloss of some moments. If nothing else, one hopes that real-life CF patients at least feel authentically represented on screen.