For the first hour and 15 minutes or so, “Five Feet Apart” meanders along as a pleasant-enough entry in the teen-romance-waylaid-by-terminal-illness genre.
Unfortunately, the movie lasts an hour and 56 minutes. Eventually the bottom drops out, which may or may not be specific enough to require a spoiler alert, depending upon how literally you want to take it. Although honestly, if after a certain point director Justin Baldoni had dropped a building on someone, it wouldn’t have been surprising, so melodramatic does the film become.
Too bad. Because Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse more than fulfill the obligations of teenage heartthrobs (in real life she’s 24 and he’s 26, but they’re playing much younger here, to good effect).
Both characters have cystic fibrosis, and for the duration of the film they are confined to a hospital. She’s playing the cliched role of hyper-organized, save-the-world control freak, while he’s the soulful rebel (just like his portrayal of Jughead in “Riverdale”), but both make more of the material than what’s given them by writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis.
They make you care about their characters, and that’s no small feat in a movie that more or less exists to make teenagers cry. But they can only do so much. You’d think two teens falling in love despite knowing, as Will, Sprouse’s character, says, they are living on borrowed air, would be enough to keep the target audience engaged.
But the movie doesn’t trust that audience. Too much is never enough here, which ironically has the effect of muting whatever emotional reaction you might otherwise have had to what’s going on in the characters’ lives.
Stella (Richardson) is in the hospital for what she calls a “tune-up,” though tough-love nurse Barb (Kimberly Herbert Gregory) mentions a fever. All this shows up on the YouTube videos Stella makes, one part of her check-off list of things to do each day. She’s educating people about CF — and, by extension, the audience. Stella is waiting for a lung transplant, though she mentions several times that for those with CF, it only extends their life expectancy by five years.
Her best friend Poe (Moises Arias), another CFer, as they call each other, is also hospitalized with pneumonia. Most often they communicate by FaceTime, because they’re particularly susceptible to each other’s bacteria — thus the tile of the film. Although that’s not really accurate; the recommended distance they keep from each other is six feet. The difference is explained as a moment of empowerment later in the film.
Eh. The film is not as out-and-out sad as “The Fault in Our Stars,” but it’s better than “Everything, Everything.” (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” still out-classes the lot of them.)
It’s a weird little genre, the sick-teen romance. “Five Feet Apart” winds up as just a pedestrian entry in it, because it tries way too hard on the melodrama front. Being a teenager is difficult enough. Being a sick teenager is presumably that much harder. Being a teenager in “Five Feet Apart” means suffering from something else, in addition: overkill. And that’s deadly.
one and a half stars
‘Five Feet Apart’
CBS Films presents a film directed by Justin Baldoni and written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and suggestive material). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.