To read a synopsis about two teenagers suffering from an uncured disease who, despite an imminent risk of death, end up falling in love with each other without thinking about the characters in Josh Boone’s 2014 film The Fault in Our Stars is almost impossible; even more so if you are under the age of 20. Thus, one of the challenges of Five Feet Apart is to differentiate itself from the first cinematographic adaptation of a novel written by John Green — a challenge that was fulfilled.
Of course, both stories share some points, such as the fact that the protagonist couple is young and ill; the love relationship they develop for each other; the best friend who accompanies — and even encourages — the development of that relationship; the constant but natural use of technology and the presence of M83’s song “Wait” on the soundtrack. However, the similarities between the two productions end there. In Five Feet Apart, there is no time for an international trip, a fancy dinner paid by a famous writer nor an exchange of intimacies. Instead of cancer, here the main characters have cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs, and they have long stays in a hospital that, despite having a beautiful gym, pool and space for meditation, serves as a constant reminder of how fragile their health is.
Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) looks like a typical teenager: her bedroom is decorated with collages, she eats junk food with her girlfriends while they talk about clothes, boys and photo editing apps and she spends a good part of her day online, recording vlogs for her YouTube channel. But appearances deceive, as in the first few seconds of the film we see that she has been hospitalized for most of her life and uses her space on the internet to inform people about her illness.
Fascinated with babies — which could be taken as a metaphor for her fascination with life — the nursery is one of the places in the hospital where Stella likes to go to observe those little beings through the glass. There, she meets Will Newman (Cole Sprouse) for the first time. Although they share the same illness, unlike Stella, Will seems unappreciative of the treatments that keep him alive. The friendship between them is sparked by Stella’s encouragement of his treatment and soon evolves into an atypical romance, since the two must always stay six feet apart from each other to avoid any risk of cross-infection.
It is exactly because it offers a realistic view of the disease, with a complete hospital routine including experiments with new drugs, tests and strict rules, that Five Feet Apart finds its voice and stands out from Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars. When faced with a rawer reality, the characters become more complex and seem more credible. Even Poe (Moisés Arias), who plays the role of Stella’s best friend and later a friend of Will’s, gets a complete arc, quite different from Isaac, the one-dimensional character played by Nat Wolff in The Fault in Our Stars. Justin Baldoni, known for his role in the series Jane The Virgin, makes a satisfactory feature directorial debut.
I believe that the experience of having previously worked with terminally or chronically patients in his documentary series My Last Days — in which he met Claire Wineland, the cystic fibrosis activist who inspired this film — gave him good support to deal with the subject in a differentiated way. Being an assumed hopeless romantic, certain parts of Baldoni’s film resemble scenes from Romeo + Juliet and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, giving the impression that he devotedly studied films of the romance genre before creating his own.
Haley Lu Richardson offers a vibrant personality for her character, masterfully mixing scenes that require greater emotional tension (such as in her previous work in the 2017 film Columbus) with juvenile comedy scenes. Besides the responsibility of representing a patient with cystic fibrosis, Stella is also a teenager with OCD, and Richardson’s acting work can convince us positively about both. Cole Sprouse, on the other hand, appears to be stuck in the mannerisms and rebellious yet charming personality of Jughead Jones, his character on Riverdale. While this may be seen as a problem to critics, it certainly went unnoticed by the large part of the young audience of the screening I was in, many of whom commented on the series and reacted with intensity to each appearance of the actor on screen.
Five Feet Apart is not a perfect film, but by offering the original premise of a young couple in love who must avoid touch in order to survive, dealing with serious issues such as mourning, guilt and the possibility of an afterlife, all while allowing its characters to go through teenage problems — the film delivers what it promises. Although it wasn’t my cup of tea, the power it plays in winning over its target audience is undeniable.
We can’t choose what problems we will face throughout our lives, when or by whom we will fall in love, but we can choose to give this movie a chance; whether you want to know more about the illness that the characters share with so many people in real life, or you want to follow a love story that makes us feel privileged just because we can touch the person we love, or even if you simply seek to cry a little in the dark of a movie theater.