Sometimes you watch a movie that makes you feel like you’ve entered a different dimension. Not in the sense that you’ve been transported to a fantastical location, but rather everything in the movie operates differently from how you would expect events to normally operate. I often feel that way when watching romance movies. Whenever I watch them, I feel caught between feeling everything in the movie is ridiculous and that, if someone were to truly attempt to portray love, then it would look somewhat ridiculous. After all, one person’s love will never be the same as another’s.
That tension between seriousness and hokeyness is heightened in Five Feet Apart, starring Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse (the Sprouse from Riverdale) as cystic fibrosis patients. As the film explains, cystic fibrosis patients are unable to touch each other, because if they do, then they could contract each other’s bacteria and die. This need to prevent cross-infection and maintain their distance — of six feet — restricts the two leads’ burgeoning romance. Richardson, as Stella, is clearly the highlight of the movie, and her energy and acting chops lift up banal and cheesy dialogue. Sprouse, who plays Will, has a bit less dramatic lifting to do, but his dry tone works well for his nihilistic, sarcastic character. The third main character, Poe, played by Moisés Arias, also works well as an emotional support for the two leads. Thankfully the film doesn’t lean too heavily into his identity as a gay Latino or stereotype him for jokes and gags.
While the three leads of the film do excellent work, the supporting cast sometimes feels like they’re in a different film. This is mainly because, despite the dour subject matter, the film mostly strays away from melodrama and maintains a light and breezy tone. Though the characters live in a hospital, they have near free reign over the premises, with its gym, food hall and lobbies. There’s even a pool which the young patients swim in together. It’s at this point in the movie that you’ll probably realize that the specter of infectious bacteria will only pop up once the plot desires it to. In these moments, the pains of cystic fibrosis that appear at the beginning of the film — the shortness of breath, the constant tiredness and the inability to engage with the outside world — become distant memories, to both the characters and the viewers. With movies about disabled or sick populations, there’s always some mental calculation in the viewer’s head as to how much of their pain is being hidden in favor of tight plotting or a more upbeat tone, and the same holds true here.
However, unlike The Fault in Our Stars, a movie from which Five Feet Apart steals liberally, cystic fibrosis drives a larger part of the plot in the latter film than cancer does in the former, and the course of their diseases more directly dictates their character growth. As Stella’s prospects seem to improve, her behavior becomes more rebellious as she seeks to take back more of the life she has lost to her disease. Meanwhile Will, his condition deteriorating and his needs newly attuned to Stella’s health, tries to prematurely end their romance to protect her. Ultimately the typical twists of romantic dramas, from betrayals to heartbreaks, seem more natural under the possibility of death — the characters’ choices appear to be natural and mature reactions to their conditions rather than violent whims of the heart.
The film’s style is also very practical, while heavily indebted to our time. This is both a consequence of the bare hospital environment and the cell phones and other various ways the main characters communicate. Stella has a YouTube channel where she records her journey with cystic fibrosis, and she and Will, often unable to meet physically, frequently communicate via FaceTime. Sometimes it can be jarring to see the compressed video feed from a computer projected onto a big screen, but this slowly becomes a part of the film’s identity.
The film also uses musical montages to comical effect — I imagine that these montages, with their twee music and slow-mo shots, would feel more natural in a conventional romantic drama. But against the backdrop of the hospital they feel overblown and are the only times the film reaches into the melodramatic.
To be frank, on its own merits, the film is nothing spectacular. It has good acting and occasionally natural writing that allows you to feel close with the small cast of characters. However, though I cannot accurately assess what this film would be like for people living with cystic fibrosis, I can say it was an apotheosis for me. Seeing a film in which people are just being people and dealing with their own morality, rather than the end of the world or some other disaster, was very relaxing. Even if the main characters may eventually die after the movie ends, they seem at peace with their fate. Even if that warmth may not be extraordinary, creating it is not easy, and it’s something to cherish and appreciate when it unexpectedly arrives.