By Andrea Thompson
There are many baffling things about the new teen weepie “Five Feet Apart,” but the most mind-boggling is how little it resembles itself in its unintentionally hilarious third act, when it completely comes apart at the seams.
Its beginning is innocent enough, and it even becomes subversive once the voiceover fades to show us a bunch of teenage girls hanging out talking about their upcoming party, and how sad they are that Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) can’t make it, even though she helped plan it. Aside from paleness, there’s not much at first to indicate that Stella is anything other than your average teen. Then her friends wave goodbye, she puts her nasal tubes in, and the camera pans back to reveal that what seemed like Stella’s bedroom is actually a hospital room.
Other things quickly become apparent, all of which basically indicate how much time she spends there. Stella’s on a first-name basis with much of the staff, greeting many of them like old friends, she’s quite adept at managing her very large medication regimen, and she’s quite knowledgeable about medical terminology and health information in general, obsessively maintaining her routine. The reason? She was born with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening illness.
When she happens to meet Will (Cole Sprouse) a rebellious teen with the same illness, it’s the stuff swoonworthy romances are made of. Not only does their illness prevent them from touching, they have to be at least six feet apart at all times, or they risk catching each other’s bacteria. Just trust me when I say that would be bad. So not only is there a lot reasons for them to stay apart, there’s plenty to fuel Nurse Barb’s (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) determination to keep them apart. It’s enough to satisfy anyone’s appetite for high drama.
Unlike her best friend Poe (Moises Arias), another kid in the hospital who’s had a string of boyfriends, Stella is new to opening up. Credit “Five Feet Apart” for mostly keeping the dramatics to a minimum in spite of the many dramatic reveals in not just the first, but the second half. Or rather, it slowly transforms Will from a character to an idealized dreamboat. Idealized or not, it’s familiar territory for Cole Sprouse since he’s essentially still playing Jughead, the character who made him famous on the hit teen show “Riverdale.” Richardson shines more not just due to her very real skills, but because Stella feels more like a person, rather than a collection of qualities designed to endear. She may have played a lead in the indie “Columbus,” but she’s probably more known to mainstream audiences for supporting turns in “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Split.”
Neither of them can hold a candle to Arias however, who steals every scene he’s in. He has likewise mostly done excellent work in supporting roles, and every minute of his time on-screen is a moment of regret that he isn’t the lead, since he seems far more interesting. Poe also gets to remind us of the very precarious situation they’ll all be in once they become adults, which is partly why his experience in dating hasn’t made him much better at opening up than Stella. As Poe points out, once he turns 18, he won’t have full coverage anymore, and his partner will have to pay for his care while he watches him die. It’s one of the most real moments in the film, and a reminder that the excellent health care they’re all receiving is as precarious as their health.
Then that goddamn third act hits, and that’s not only when “Five Feet Apart” stops being appealing to anyone outside of the angsty set, it (and Will) becomes so paternalistic it brings “Twilight” to mind. Will is basically the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. You know the kind, quirky, brooding, tends to disappear on the heroine but nevertheless helps her to be a more carefree person? Think Jack in “Titanic,” Augustus Waters from “The Fault in Our Stars,” Will Traynor from “Me Before You.” Maybe if the parents showed up more before this things wouldn’t have gotten out of hand, but what are you gonna do. There are quite a few teens who will enjoy this, but it’s the kind of movie you rewatch later in life while either laughing at yourself or writhing in shame. If “Five Feet Apart” does have a long shelf life, it’ll be as the movie you tuck away and get out when absolutely no one is looking, driven by that need many of us have to relive all that drama from a thankfully safe distance.