Review: Romance tops drama in 'Five Feet Apart'

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse make cute in this teenage romance about a pair of cystic fibrosis patients

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in "Five Feet Apart."

Teen romance is tragic enough without terminal illness thrown into the mix. 

But since "The Fault in Our Stars" ramped up the stakes of young love by bringing cancer into the picture, filmmakers have been throwing all sorts of medical obstacles at teenage lovebirds.

In "Everything, Everything," Amandla Stenberg's character was confined to her house because of a mysterious ailment, and in "Midnight Sun," Bella Thorne's character suffered from a rare disorder which wouldn't allow her to go into the sunlight. 

The heartfelt, mostly efficient "Five Feet Apart" combines the sickness aspect of "The Fault in Our Stars" — the lead characters are cystic fibrosis patients — and the spatial limitations of "Everything, Everything." Their symptoms won't allow them any physical contact, which for hormone-charged teenagers is a different kind of death sentence.   

The romance between "Five Feet Apart's" two leads blossoms in a natural, believable way. It's only near the close that the film seeps into melodramatic territory and begins to ring desperate. 

Haley Lu Richardson, who played Hailee Steinfeld's character's best friend in "The Edge of Seventeen," is a delight as the bubbly Stella, a CF patient who's so frequently in the hospital she knows the staff, the patients and has the run of the place.

She's taken aback when Will ("Riverdale's" Cole Sprouse), a dreamboat CFer, takes up residence on her floor. He's there for a clinical drug trial, and he's a new puzzle for Stella to solve. All the time they spend together — when they're not visiting the NICU together, they're hanging out on Facetime — leads to love, but they're not allowed within six feet of each other. They decide to risk an extra foot, using a pool cue as a measuring stick, which leads to the film's title. 

"Five Feet Apart" introduces audiences to the realities of cystic fibrosis — Stella hacks up a glob of phlegm in an early scene — before settling into a semi-routine teen romance groove. Stella is a good girl with OCD-ish tendencies, Will is the brooding artist type, and they're brought together by their differences as well as the commonalities of the disease they share. 

Director Justin Baldoni, making his feature film debut, keeps the tone upbeat, considering the material, and gives a good sense of the hospital where the film mostly unfolds. Moises Arias and Kimberly Hebert Gregory provide strong support as a fellow patient and a nurse, respectively. 

But a straightforward romance with a backdrop of illness isn't going to cue the waterworks, so the script (by first time screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) bends backwards in its final act to tug at the audience's heartstrings. It's mostly nuanced until that point, so the closing histrionics come off as overkill and out of character. 

That doesn't dampen the work of Richardson and Sprouse, or the romance at the film's center. "Five Feet Apart" works hard for its tears. But it's the honesty of the performances that makes it worth the investment. 

'Five Feet Apart'


Rated PG-13: for thematic elements, language and suggestive material

Running time: 116 minutes