Film Review: Five Feet Apart

A friend of mine was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of eight. It's atypical. Normally, those infected are diagnosed as a baby. For Cady, a junior at Marist College, it was quite different; the entire experience was, frankly.

The medicines and treatments were a whole new world for her when they first came along. Her form is mild, so the constant hospital trips and strict treatment regimen as depicted in Five Feet Apart are not nearly as crucial. "Now I don't even think about it," she told me. "Daily, it doesn't affect me unless I'm sick. In that case, I have to increase all of my medicine."

Every breath to the typical CF-er, as they dub themselves, is a victory. That's because the disease causes the body to produce a profuse and persistent mucus, one that covers vital organs and makes it difficult to breathe normally. Cady does treatments everyday. There's a vest, one that vibrates to help bring up the mucus, temporarily preventing it from caking the lungs. There are vaccines and medicines, but there's no known cure. The average life expectancy used to be 10. Today, it averages out at 37. Things are improving for those diagnosed, but certainly not drastically. This makes every breath vital and valuable. There's always the possibility that it's a CF-er's last.

Five Feet Apart, the debut feature from Justin Baldoni, is the first Hollywood feature that brings such a rampant disease and its consequences to life. It chronicles the lives, however potentially waning, of Stella (a majestic Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse), two teenage CF-ers whose outlooks on their fateful condition are vastly divergent.

Stella literally says that she lives for her treatments; her aggressive OCD causes her to line up her pills in a rather soothing pattern. Her hospital room, one which has become all too familiar over the years, is perfectly organized from her wall draped in artwork to her pillows, and she mans a journal filled solely with daily checklists. Will, on the other hand, believes that every breath he takes is borrowed air. Forever a cynic, Will refuses to truly live. Rather, he's the kind of guy, as Stella quips, "who ignores the rules because it makes [him] feel in control." She's not wrong; his days are often spent dangling his legs off of the side of the hospital roof, looking out at a city of those who never have to ponder their last breath. 

There's an interesting yet morbid wrinkle to all of this: Will, like many others in this world, falls within a category of cystic fibrosis patients who carry a bacteria strain that is harmless to most people but perhaps fatal to those with his same condition. It's called B. cepacia, and it can easily be spread if those who suffer from cystic fibrosis touch. 

Hence the film's title, one that is cleverly misleading. Five Feet Apart isn't the rule. Those with CF are required to remain six feet apart at all times (an instruction commonly demanded by Nurse Barb (a passionate and vivacious Kimberly Hebert Gregory)). But Stella especially is desperate to become close to someone before she dies. Without her YouTube channel (which acts as Stella's sounding board, a rather predictable yet appropriate choice by Baldoni), she might as well live in relative isolation, as if she doesn't already. Will can change that, as long as the star-crossed lovers behave surreptitiously. But the risks are etched in stone. The characters have to do their best to blur the line between chancing fate and sealing their own. 

Five Feet Apart's significance should not necessarily overshadow its shortcomings, those that are just far enough from damning. Cystic fibrosis is a cruel disease; it's a bit perturbing how Baldoni depicts its consequences in a manner that is meant to be funny. It's covered from head to toe in the exact soundtrack you may find in any movie of its nature (a la The Fault in Our Stars; Everything, Everything), coated with the tones of M83 and Andy Grammar.

Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis’ script is rather contrived, too, causing some of the film's better, more authentic moments to seem almost ephemeral (it's littered with lines like "I'm tired of living without really living"). And yet it's difficult to criticize a film that is helmed with such care and precision.

The film's emotion is wholly buttressed by Haley Lu Richardson's performance as Stella. Richardson's previous works range from large-use roles in minimal-release films like Columbus and Support the Girls. In each, as cliché as it may sound, she acts as a light on the screen. Her energy is palpable, not just as an actor, but you can feel her soul as a human. Although Stella is ebullient and zestful by nature, Richardson is able to modulate that and deliver a performance that feels very true. Her exquisite ability to be both rigid and vivacious is untouched. You can sense through Richardson that Stella sees this disease as her mountain, but she would never celebrate the triumph that would be climbing to its peak. That victory would be more for her family and her friends, as she has a clear mantra of obligation. She needs to stay alive for two reasons, and in a strict order: everyone else, then herself.

Cole Sprouse delivers his performance with a rebellious yet endearing chord. Will often rejects Stella's attempts to keep him focused on his med regimen simply because he knows that getting too close to her could prove gutting for the both of them. Sprouse is phenomenal in this respect; his role is that of the bad boy rule breaker, sure, but he's able to convince you that he holds more than an ounce of empathy. By the film's end, he's lost his brooding nature and developed a true affection for the efforts of those around him to save him from a disease that is all but crippling; a defeatist turned relative optimist, it's clear to see that the hope of those around him has seeped into Will.

One of those hopefuls comes in the form of Poe (Moisés Arias), Stella's best friend and fellow CF-er. Arias acts as the story's stabilizer. He's not necessarily hopeful on the subject of life expectancy; he is always willing to assure his friends that every moment is a privilege. "We're not normal kids," he explains. "We don't get to take chances like this." He's more a hopeful in the sense that he itches for Stella and Will to fall for one another, an eventually fulfilled wish. Aside from Richardson, his performance is the most authentic. He's a realist, a hopeless romantic and a companion. Amidst a rather schlocky teen-romance, Arias' Poe is exactly what the film needs. 

As a critic, I want so badly to critique the melodramatic fluctuation of this film; it's poor regulation of tragedy as a narrative device. I can, as it certainly possesses both and is nearly hindered by both facets. It utilizes a few predictable themes, like the not-at-all discrete lust of To All the Boys I've Loved Before and the ailing character's romance of The Fault in Our Stars, which, in most cases, I'd deem problematic. And yet Five Feet Apart exists on its own, with a more unique set of tropes defined by the horridly unique circumstances of these ill kids.

What Baldoni has with this debut is far from perfect cinema, but more an important installment that gives a voice to a silent, forgotten group of ailing people. They walk and talk normally like you and I, but live and breathe differently. Five Feet Apart is a necessary film, bringing such realities as it depicts to the public's attention. It will strike varied chords, in vastly different ways, but both CF-ers and those unaware of their tribulations can find something to appreciate.

At a climactic point, Stella decides to take one foot of those six back. "After all that CF has stolen from me," she says, "I don't mind stealing something back. One foot. Just one foot closer." It's something that we -- those who breathe carelessly, never spending more than a moment considering those breaths -- take for granted. We can slow dance with our partners. We can hug our best friend on their birthday or after they get that long-awaited job offer. We can share these moments with whomever we like. Not everyone can. Five Feet Apart got me thinking: maybe it's time we consider the time we still have, and the moments we otherwise think of as trivial.