Five Feet Apart: I Can’t Hide the Tears but I Don’t Care, by David Bax
In the opening scene of Justin Baldoni’s Five Feet Apart, a teenager, Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), helps two of her friends select outfits for their upcoming trip. The three girls joke around, offer each other words of support and check Instagram in what appears to be Stella’s bedroom. Then, the friends have to leave and we learn why Stella isn’t accompanying them on their excursion. We’re not in a bedroom but a hospital room that Stella has decorated, as her disease requires a long term stay. Along with the sudden shift in perspective, Baldoni changes the lighting from halcyon warmth to fluorescent drab. It’s a neat, subtle trick but it may not have been necessary. Five Feet Apart already has one of the best special effects available today in Richardson. She sells Stella’s internal shift once that hospital room door closes with her eyes alone. And then she sells the entire movie.
Stella has cystic fibrosis and lengthy hospital stays have been a regular part of her life since she was a small child. She’s on a first name basis with nurses like Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and has a best friend in Poe (Moises Arias), a fellow CF patient who’s staying a few doors down. New to the ward is Will (Cole Sprouse), a pessimistic loner whose barely disguised anger at the world about his situation stands in stark contrast to Stella’s positive, proactive and extremely well-organized approach to her treatment regimen. So, obviously, they’re going to spend the entire movie hating each other, right?
Of course not. But luckily, the screenplay (by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) knows that we know that and doesn’t labor through the motions. Five Feet Apart has no illusions about its broadly melodramatic identity and wastes little time turning itself into a kind of superheated The Fault in Our Stars. Baldoni’s unselfconscious direction is part of what makes it work but most of the credit belongs to the cast. Sprouse, Arias and Gregory, along with Claire Forlani and Parminder Nagra, are solid but the shining center of the movie is Richardson. In recent years, she’s been a standout in small roles in major releases (Split, Operation Finale) and large roles in smaller films (Columbus, Support the Girls) but there’s no reason she shouldn’t be due to break out. She’s bright, assured and charismatic; a born movie star.
Also keeping things fresh is an apparent (at least to this over-30 reviewer) awareness of youth dating culture. After their first encounter, Will sets about learning as much as he can about Stella from her and her sister’s YouTube and Instagram accounts, behavior which is not depicted as stalking but, probably correctly so, as natural and expected for constantly online teenagers. And, while the rules for cystic fibrosis patients keeps them necessarily chaste, the movie itself comes across as relaxed and unfussy about sex.
Most of the character specifics come from the performances and not the page, or from inconspicuous touches like the fact that, when aspiring cartoonist Will sketches his fellow residents, he does so without the nose tubes they wear whenever they’re ambulatory. Details like these imply an above par level of care on the part of Baldoni and his crew.
Whether or not the film is respectful and representative of the experience of those living with cystic fibrosis and their loved ones is not for me to say. But as part of the long literary, dramatic and cultural tradition of stories about teens that conflate love and death—from Romeo and Juliet to “Leader of the Pack”—it delivers, even with its blunt, unromantic depiction of the end of a life, in which we simply, devastatingly don’t get to see each other anymore. Five Feet Apart is a movie you go to for a good, cathartic cry and that’s exactly what you’ll get.