In Five Feet Apart, a young woman with cystic fibrosis falls for a young man with the same condition and must maintain a safe distance lest she be infected with his respiratory bacteria.
The phrase “toxic masculinity” can be overused, but seems to apply here, where every sneeze is a threat, and a kiss is a reckless danger.
The young man is played by Cole Sprouse of the CW’s Riverdale, and he’s the tall, thin, brooding type with a large mop of dark hair that droops down over his forehead, concealing one blue eye, and perhaps uncharted depths of sensitivity. It’s a familiar and also a popular look — if Timothee Chalamet were to star in Jordan Peele’s doppleganger movie Us, Sprouse is the guy he would see at the end of his driveway.
In Five Feet Apart, Sprouse plays Will, a morose fellow with reason to be — he’s near the end of a not-very-promising experimental drug trial. The disease that has ruined his lungs has also sapped his spirit, and when he ascends to the top floor of the hospital and sits on the ledge of the roof, we’re not sure he’s there for the view.
When fellow patient Stella spots him, she talks him off the ledge — physically and otherwise. They have an instant and mutual attraction, giving Will a reason to stick to his medical regimen, which represents his renewed commitment to living, brought about by love.
That can register as corny sentiment, but the two leads here make the premise plausible and resonant. The story is centered on Stella, played appealingly by Haley Lu Richardson. As written, Stella is a “bossy” Type A personality who makes a to-do list for herself and also for everybody else. Richardson has a natural warmth and effervescence that takes the edge off Stella’s perfectionist streak.
The characters meet each other halfway — Stella becomes less rigid, Will less depressed — and the movie, despite its pop sensibility (including an overuse of musical cues), shows the young people wrestling sincerely with Big Issues like life, death, love, sacrifice, duty, and family.
The circumstantial chastity and soul-mate match between overlooked girl and dreamy, doomed guy has faint echoes of Twilight, but without the death-wish morbidity. Five Feet Apart is grounded in a candid medical reality, and Kimberly Hebert Gregory has a nice role as tough-love nurse who keeps an eye on Will and Stella, giving their relationship room to grow within the boundaries of hospital rules.
The movie is actually not bad, until it goes full Lifetime Channel crazy in the third act. If, for instance, you think Five Feet Apart wouldn’t actually use thin ice as a visual metaphor for two people in dangerously precarious health, you’d be mistaken.
Five Feet Apart. Directed by Justin Baldoni. With Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Moises Arias, and Parminder Nagra. Distributed by CBS Films.
Running time: 2 hours
Parents’ guide: PG-13 (language)