Two attractive young adults. An inescapable entity which keeps them apart. Apprehensive frowns that turn into longing stares. Heavy sigh.
These are some classic ingredients that make up a typical cliched, sometimes doomed, fictional romance film targeted at yearning millennials. Films like “Twilight,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Everything, Everything,” “Love, Simon” and “If I Stay” with similar storylines have graced the silver screen in recent years, some of which exceeded expectations while others remain best left in the rear window mirror. The latest such romantic drama film, “Five Feet Apart,” seemed initially stereotypical as its premise feels all too familiar but it packs a surprisingly well-directed and poignant punch.
Rising actress Haley Lu Richardson portrays Stella Grant, a teenage patient with cystic fibrosis — a genetic disorder which largely impacts the lungs with no known cure — who has to live in a hospital but is open to sharing her life journey through YouTube vlogging. Supported by her loving parents, the film already establishes that she had found allies in fellow gay CF patient, Poe — viewers may recognize him as Moises Arias who played Rico in Disney’s “Hannah Montana” — and nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).
Grant’s pulse takes a metaphorical soar when she meets the brooding, sarcastic Will Newman, played by “Riverdale” heartthrob Cole Sprouse who also has CF and is undergoing an experimental clinical trial. While his occasional smirks and brown luscious locks inadvertently typecast him as the rebellious bad boy, he manages to win the audience — and Grant’s heart — with his genuine likability and smoldering charisma. The film’s central story focuses on how Newman and Grant physically must stay at least six feet apart of each other to prevent cross-infection due to their individual conditions.
The film’s title is connected to how Grant wants to challenge that “six feet rule” and maintain at least five feet of distance instead, a rule that becomes more difficult to follow as the two start falling for each other. This stems from how Grant feels tired of being limited by her CF and she also tries to exercise as much control as she can over her life by keeping herself busy with designing apps, live streaming her everyday life, and ensuring her fellow CF patients stick to their treatments.
Directed by Justin Baldoni who is famed for playing Rafael Solano on the CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” it largely takes place within the hospital grounds, exemplified by how Grant often looks out her window to cherish the distant city lights. It is a risky directorial choice to have the film almost exclusively stay within the same location but that concern evaporates as Grant and Newman’s developing romance and Barb’s no-nonsense maternal humor take center stage. Hence, it feels ironically strange once the couple leaves the hospital for a one-night stroll, an impressive decision on Baldoni’s part.
One main highlight of the film is when Grant and Newman hold opposite ends of a billiard pool cue stick, to represent around five feet of safe distance, as if they’re “holding hands” while they traverse the hospital for their first date. Baldoni impressively expands on this quiet romantic gesture by having the two sit between the cue stick by the hospital’s swimming pool. Things get silently sensual as Grant gently places the cue stick over her bare shoulder for example, and they eventually stand to strip and showcase their individual scars as a result of their CF and treatments.
This relates to how the film succeeds in its quieter moments, not its dramatic ones, where the characters say little or no dialogue and the camera pans to show how heartbreaking it is that the couple can’t physically touch, hug or kiss each other, things that normal people take advantage of. From that same observation, it feels alarming when Grant suddenly holds Newman’s hand with a glove in one scene and when Newman’s bare hand rests briefly on Grant’s shoulder in another.
“Five Feet Apart” represents one of the smaller entries in the young adult romance film genre for maintaining a more intimate atmosphere. Baldoni seemingly does not intend for it to be too ambitious, a common problem with other similar films that try to choke the audience with overt star-crossed lovers’ drama and cheesy messages, and it mostly results in a delicate success.