'Five Feet Apart' Review: A Romance That Aims For Tears By Sacrificing Everything Else

Haley Lu Richardson has "up-and-coming movie star" written all over her, from her innate charm to her high-wattage smile, which she puts to excellent use in the sappy star-crossed romance Five Feet Apart. Richardson, who established herself with her impressive work in The Edge of Seventeen, Columbus, and Support The Girls, has an undeniable charisma that ensures her performance here is something truly special. The film surrounding Richardson, unfortunately, ends up being so mawkish and contrived that it's more likely to elicit groans than tears.The title, Five Feet Apart, refers to the distance that the two leads must maintain from each other lest they cross-contaminate with often deadly bacteria. No, this isn't some weird new post-apocalyptic, dystopian YA franchise. Almost every scene in this film takes place in a fancy, expansive hospital, specifically the ward in which children and teenagers diagnosed with cystic fibrosis reside. Those with CF, as it's nicknamed, have limited lung capacity and an equally limited lifespan, to the point where many don't live long enough to try to have children of their own. This explainer is provided helpfully via the YouTube channel of the teenaged Stella (Richardson), who's just returned to the hospital for a "tune-up." It's there that she encounters  fellow CF patient Will (Cole Sprouse), who's been selected for a new drug trial in hopes of combating the currently cure-less disease. Typically, CF patients must keep six feet away from each other, but as Stella and Will fall madly in love, they dare to risk things by a single foot.With the premise being what it is, it should come as no surprise that Five Feet Apart aspires to be the kind of weepie teenage drama like A Walk to Remember, the kind of film that will be a formative experience for the right demographic due to exactly how many tears you shed in the third act. Its basic hook is an almost parodic extension of the way YA writers contrive to keep their star-crossed lovers apart; this time, they literally can't even touch each other. But the premise is easier to swallow than its shamelessly manipulative finale.That, essentially, is the problem with the script, by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis: Five Feet Apart feels shakily reverse-engineered to arrive at an ending that will leave the audience sobbing. What would have been nice is if the script built to a tearful conclusion naturally, instead of contriving a series of events in the third act that pile atop each other like a painful car crash. It's one thing for the script to offer its own version of the old cop-movie cliché where the lead is partnered with a fellow cop who's just one week away from retirement, but is in reality headed for death. It's another to use that cliché, and then have a couple of characters running away, and the possibility of an organ transplant, and even more — all within the span of a single night.The third act of Five Feet Apart stands out as being especially frustrating in part because what comes before it is, if not world-beating cinema, a decent exploration of how different teenagers respond to a death-sentence diagnosis. Stella, as we see from the first scene, wants to live her life as opposed to dwell on the likelihood that it will come to an end for her much earlier than it should. Will, when we first meet him, is gloomy and callow, treating life fatalistically before Stella's ebullience turns him around. (From scene to scene, it's hard to tell if one or the other leads is a manic pixie dream character, their moments of charm seeming to exist solely to cheer someone up.) Richardson and Sprouse have an affable chemistry, even if it's not quite enough to make you think they've fallen hopelessly in love with each other. This is, in part, because Sprouse is saddled with some relatively rough dialogue. When Will declares his passion for Stella in a nighttime dalliance at the hospital's pool, it sounds like overheated treacle, whereas when Stella admits her own attraction, it's via a goofy voicemail she leaves him while hopped up on morphine. At least in the latter situation, the unexpected setup becomes more charming.But because the way the script is written, and how director Justin Baldoni (best known as Rafael on the CW dramedy Jane the Virgin) paces the story, Five Feet Apart goes into overdrive in the final half-hour to wring as many tears as possible through a series of events that are both unlikely and ridiculous. Both leads do their best in these scenes, though it becomes clear that their innate talent can only extend so far before even they're unable to elevate eye-rolling material.Five Feet Apart is not a great film, but it has greatness within its grasp thanks to Haley Lu Richardson. As in her previous work, Richardson here is nothing less than a star in the making. Her past films, ranging from teen comedies to indie character studies, emphasize that with the right material, she can be a truly winning presence. Five Feet Apart suggests that Richardson can excel even in slightly juvenile material. But she can only do so much./Film Rating: 5 out of 10