A romantic movie is only as good as its obstacles. A good love story hinges on what the lovers have to overcome to be together, whether it’s long distances, a class schism or a feud between noble families in 14th-century Verona.
If nothing else, “Five Feet Apart” has a humdinger of a reason keeping its couple apart. Both Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) have cystic fibrosis, and Will’s strain includes bacteria that could be fatal to Stella if she got infected.
It may sound like a retread of other YA dramas like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Everything, Everything,” and Justin Baldoni’s drama certainly hits some familiar emotional beats. But “Five Feet” is often understated and modest (aside from one hokey scene in the climax), and very upfront about the hard truths of living with a serious chronic illness. It also features two appealing lead performances. One of those performances is good, the other is truly great.
Stella (Richardson of “Columbus”) has lived with CF for most of her entire life, and the film is upfront and unsparing about how the disease has upturned her life. Back in the hospital for yet another extended stay, she briskly redecorates the room, plans out all her treatments, and records YouTube videos chronicling every step of the process. She uses organization and order as a way to shield herself from a scary and unknown future. Those with CF live to an average age of 37.
Enter Will (Sprouse, who plays Jughead on “Riverdale”), a rebellious and artistic teenager who has a more serious strain of CF, and is in the hospital for an experimental drug trial. Naturally, Stella’s hyper-organized ways and Will’s sarcastic rebellion clash. Just as naturally, they eventually warm up to each other.
Despite the familiar story arc, it is poignant to watch these two teens become friends, and then more, turning the sterile corridors of the hospital (which the film almost never leaves) into a warm and even romantic spot. Bardoni, an actor on "Jane the Virgin" making his debut as a filmmaker, generates some real romantic heat as the two teenagers fall for each other while staying physically separate. The stakes for “Will they or won’t they?” have rarely been so high.
But the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iocanis starts piling on the contrivances in the third act, and a climactic trip outside the hospital to a very fake-looking frozen lake leads to some guffaw-inducing twists. Fortunately, the actors are able to rise above the material and guide the film in for its inevitable but moving finale.
Sprouse is a good actor, who can play the right emotion in any given scene. But Richardson is a great actress, who has had a string of performances (“Columbus,” “Support the Girls,” “Edge of Seventeen”) where she finds the complex undertones in seemingly everyday young women. She can play just the right emotion, but then stir in six or seven other emotions under the surface at the same time.
Whenever the material doesn’t rise to her level in “Five Feet Apart,” which is not infrequently, she pulls it up to meet her.