With the clock ticking down on his time as Rafael on the CW’s soon-to-end Jane the Virgin, Justin Baldoni set his sights on the next step in many an actor’s career: Directing. Absurdly handsome and gently charismatic, Baldoni has the on-screen advantages to handle his hit show’s comedy and pathos in equal measure. With Five Feet Apart, the new director also proves himself a competent storyteller with an eye for talent—but not a mind for fresh ideas. Another romantic terminal illness movie that invites direct comparison to The Fault in Our Stars and Everything, Everything, this young-adult tear-jerker is bogged down by cliche and a lack of vision, buoyed only by a fresh performance from lead actress Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls, Columbus) and an honest conversation about the loneliness of disease.
Richardson stars as cystic fibrosis patient Stella Grant, a bubbly, college-age woman who keeps a tight schedule and an organized medicine cart. To stay optimistic and open about her illness, Stella regularly uploads vlogs to her YouTube channel and FaceTimes her non-hospital friends and fellow CF-patient bestie Poe (Moises Arias)—who lives down the hall, and who the film goes to weird lengths to point out is gay. While stuck on an extended hospital visit, Stella meets Will Newman (Cole Sprouse), a dreamy bad boy with cystic fibrosis and zero sense of self-preservation. He’s messy, he doesn’t take his meds and he’s a nihilist—the complete opposite of Stella, and thus, her inevitable second half. Will agrees to let Stella coach him through being a good patient if she lets him draw her (cue the awws), and their romance unfolds naturally from there.
But of course, there’s a catch—people with cystic fibrosis can’t be within six feet of each other without risking cross-infection, and with Will suffering from a particularly dangerous bacterial infection, getting close would be a death sentence for them both. Romeo and Juliet, meet Will and Stella. As the two begin to sneak around, nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) imposes stricter separation rules, afraid of losing them like she did two other young patients in love. Frustrated by everything her disease has taken from her, including the chance to be with her sister Abby before she died in a cliff-diving accident, Stella tells Will she’s “taking one foot back” and limiting her distance from him to five feet apart, conveniently measured by a pool cue. When tragedy strikes Stella’s life once more, she begins to shed her measured, fearful attitude and risk her life to be with Will while she still can.
So many pieces of Five Feet Apart, from its restless heroine to its poetic heartthrob and fascination with the state of being young and sick, seem plucked directly from John Green’s best-seller The Fault in Our Stars, successfully adapted for the screen in 2014. While Green didn’t invent the young-adult romance genre, he’s certainly defined it during the past decade, and it’s easy to see why a new director like Baldoni would find comfort in telling that kind of story—it comes with a built-in audience and built-in emotions. Terminal illness is universally compelling, even when turned maudlin. But that’s a cynical interpretation, and it’s important to note that, as Green was inspired to write The Fault in Our Stars after the death of his friend Esther Earl from thyroid cancer in 2010, Baldoni found inspiration for Five Feet Apart in his friend Claire Wineland, who died of a cystic fibrosis-related stroke last year. Like Stella, Wineland talked openly about cystic fibrosis on social media, serving as a voice of honesty and comfort for others living with the disease.
It’s fitting, then, that Stella’s testimony about the challenges of chronic illness is the highlight of Five Feet Apart—it’s backed by truth and the actual personality of an extraordinary woman. Being sick sucks, it’s lonely, it’s isolating and it’s something that millions of people deal with every day. Richardson is owed her due for carrying such authenticity with her performance, all the while staying bright, charismatic and plain fun to watch. Sprouse’s groggy Will can’t hold a candle to Stella, and his performance is much more one-dimensional.
It’s a shame that a movie with such honest pathos still feels the need to go cloying and sentimental, but it can’t seem to help itself. As Five Feet Apart whirls toward its melodramatic conclusion, the soundtrack of on-the-nose acoustic love songs grows louder, the stakes get higher, the tears come faster. You root for two young people in love because you’re supposed to, even if Will is kind of a pretentious ass with a weird voice, and because Romeo and Juliet is a classic for a reason—you’ve just seen it all a million times before. ◆
Five Feet Apart ★★
Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Emily Baldoni, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Parminder Nagra and Claire Forlani. Written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. Directed by Justin Baldoni. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, South Bay and in the suburbs.