Family Movie Review: Five Feet Apart (PG-13)

The strong performances in teen romance ‘Five Feet Apart’ can’t redeem a cliched plot.

Kernel Rating: 2 (2 out of 5)

MPAA Rating: PG-13                Length: 116 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 14+. This film about teenagers with cystic fibrosis who fall in love includes many clichés of this subgenre, including a forbidden relationship and a male protagonist who saves the female protagonist more than once. Some infrequent cursing but a lot of jokes and conversation about sex; teens stand in front of each other in their underwear; the teens often discuss their diagnoses and the elements of their disease, including surgeries, procedures, and infections, and you see their scars and the medical equipment they need to stay alive; and various characters die onscreen and offscreen and engage in dangerous activities, including playing on a frozen lake.

By Roxana Hadadi

How do you live when your life has an expected end date? That is the question the teenage protagonists ponder in the latest teen romance “Five Feet Apart,” which features strong performances from stars Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse but a cliched plot that encourages the idea of sacrifice as love—an idea so many teen-focused romances can’t seem to advance past.

FiveFeetApart1 ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewStella Grant (Richardson) is a high school senior back in the hospital for a “tune up”; she has lived with cystic fibrosis her whole life, and at this point, has her schedule of treatments and medicines down pat. She has spent years on the wait list for a lung transplant, has a YouTube-verified account The Daily Breath in which she talks about her life and educates her viewers about cystic fibrosis and its effects; and in general seems to be as well-adjusted as possible, given that doctors told her she would die two years ago. (And even with a lung transplant, her life expectancy is still only about another five years.)

But Stella’s routine is upended when Will Newman (Sprouse) is admitted to the hospital for an experimental drug trial. Will also has cystic fibrosis, but has contracted a particular bacterial infection that makes it impossible for him to receive a lung transplant. Because patients with cystic fibrosis can be highly contagious of each other, the teens need to stand six feet away from each other at all times. Stella has never hugged her best friend, Poe (Moises Arias, of “Pitch Perfect 3”), who is also a patient at the hospital, but the three of them understand each other deeply.

They know that they will one day die from this disease, but the difference is in how they approach it: Stella wants to be in control, Will has given up hope, and Poe is somewhere in the middle. How the three of them interact, and in particular how Stella and Will adapt to each other and cause changes in each other, is the focus of “Five Feet Apart.”

For the most part, “Five Feet Apart” follows the same formula as so many of these sick-teen films, like “The Fault in Our Stars”: These adolescents shouldn’t fall in love with each other, and their parents and caretakers are against it, but with such little time left for them, why not? “Five Feet Apart” adds nothing different to that familiar setup, but to its credit, the film does take care to explain cystic fibrosis to viewers and to discuss its impact on people living with it. The film discusses various bacteria, equipment, and therapeutic options, and that level of detail is a little unprecedented for this kind of film. Viewers will probably walk away with more knowledge about this disease then they did walking in, and that may inspire conversations between parents or older viewers and teens about medical research. 

The ensemble does everything it can to elevate this material: Richardson is lovely and utterly believable as a young woman putting forth a presentation of positivity to avoid slipping into despair. Arias has added a zany energy to many of the films in which he stars, including “The Kings of Summer,” and he brings that same vibe here (although again, what happens to his character is a cliché of this genre). And Sprouse, already a teen heartthrob thanks to his role on the TV show “Riverdale,” adds depth and fragility to his bad-boy role. The character is a trope, but Sprouse excels at countering Richardson’s charm with a slightly sarcastic rebelliousness that adds to the chemistry between the pair.

Still, “Five Feet Apart” doesn’t do much different, and the ending in particular reinforces the idea so common to this genre: that a young woman needs to be saved by a young man, that her carefully constructed routines need to be “livened up.” Although Richardson and Sprouse are great together, the overall idea behind “Five Feet Apart,” that only real love can develop from sacrifice and loss, is one that we should be moving away from rather than encouraging for young viewers.

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