Five Feet Apart (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

It was only about five years ago that I first heard of Cystic fibrosis (CF) – or, at least, the first time I really had to be aware of it. I’m a high school film teacher, and I had an amazing student who literally lit up every room he came into named Jerry (follow him on Instagram and see his compelling story there). Jerry had CF, and a year or so into knowing him, he had a lung transplant. He’s not had an easy time of it, but you would never be able to tell if you spoke with him. Of course, if you ran into him, you may not recognize him, as he may be cosplaying as Green Arrow, the Green Ranger, or another fantastic character. When I saw the first trailer for Five Feet Apart (2019), I immediately messaged him to see if he’d heard of this love story about two CF patients. He expressed concern that this movie could “encourage CF patients of (a younger age) to push those boundaries and (endanger) themselves and others.” Needless to say, I went into this film with this on my mind – but the film won me over, and I believe Jerry may be okay with it as well.

Five Feet Apart is the distance between tears while watching this film

Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is back in the hospital dealing with various problems as a result of CF. While receiving her treatments, she attracts the attention of another CF patient, named Will (Cole Sprouse). Stella is a strict follower of rules, and her treatment schedule is disrupted by Will’s apparent lackadaisical attitude towards all of it. She pushes him to do better, and he concedes – but only as long as he can draw her. However, the most challenging part of it all is that have to stay six feet apart in order to not spread one of their bacteria to the other.

Shame on me for doubting that Haley Lu Richardson could make this movie work. In every film she has been in that I’ve seen – which is several – she has been primarily the shining light, whether it is a film I love, like Columbus (2017), or a film I only kind of liked – Support the Girls (2018). She is such a dynamic actress, and she definitely makes this film the outstanding melodrama that it is. Stella is a loveable character who is struggling with a lot. Her mom says something along the lines that “she couldn’t live without her”, which has to be an unbelievable weight to bear for someone who is fighting against the odds. She has to constantly give up some of her dreams because her health won’t allow her to do them all. Then, the major sacrifice this film brings up is the challenges of physical relationships caused by CF – self-consciousness as a result of the various scars and ports, and opportunities.

Will presents the worst kind of opportunity: the forbidden fruit. That means that Cole Sprouse has to be unbelievably charming for the audience to believe that a person as regimented and focused on surviving as Stella would take even the slightest risk by being near him. Fortunately for director Justin Baldoni, writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis Sprouse were completely up for the challenge. At first, much of his dialogue is a little eye-roll inducing, but as the initial cool-guy facade is peeled back, it’s hard not to love Will. Thus, as Stella and Will chip away at each other’s various defenses, I was completely sucked in. The worst part during this time was wondering if Jerry’s worry would prove to be necessary.

I won’t spoil how things play out with their relationship, but I think the movie walks the line when dealing with CF and the clear barrier it puts between the two main characters. If Stella were to catch Will’s bacteria, she would no longer be eligible for a lung transplant. Jerry is currently also trying to find a hospital who will allow him for a second lung transplant. This only made the weight of this film all the more real to me. I thought the filmmakers have brought CF into the public light in a compelling way that will be compared to The Fault in Our Stars (2014), as far as teen love stories that are challenged by medical problems.

There is no question that this film is a melodrama, though. A few scenes in the film made members of the audience, and myself, react loudly in opposition to the direction the film was going in. Especially because the film does such a great job of making us love our two main characters, plus the great supporting ones like Nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and Stella’s best friend and fellow CF patience Poe (Moises Arias). We really get to live with these characters for a while in their routine, and when things start picking up, we are so emotionally invested that it is impossible to not react.

Final thoughts…

Five Feet Apart was a pleasant surprise and a film that I will likely add to my Melodrama genre unit for my students. I hope I’m right that Jerry would approve of how the film handles the information about CF, the interaction between Will and Stella, and the potential consequences that the movie addresses. The final words of the film were powerful, and I definitely cried too many times. Five Feet Apart earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.

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