The teen-weepie arms race first set in motion by The Fault in Our Stars comes to a head with the weapons-grade tearjerker Five Feet Apart. Telegenic adolescents have been dropping like flies as of late, but Justin Baldoni’s film ups the ante by dealing not just one but both of its leads a life-threatening illness. And because that condition happens to be cystic fibrosis, which makes patients catastrophically susceptible to each other’s germs, all skin-on-skin contact has been medically forbidden.
The same higher truth guiding the epic yearning of Twilight undergirds the story of starstruck crushes Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse): when faced with the choice between a hookup and continued life, high schoolers will always choose the former.
Although a less-insufferable entry into this particular subgenre, the now customary “tortured romance too pure to last” routine doesn’t quite work this time around. The film’s main strength is its young leads, both of whom easily clear the bar of ‘passable’ that the script sets for them. Richardson and Sprouse are each saddled with a stock character, yet they enact them with enough skill and earnestness to reestablish why these archetypes have stood the test of time.
He’s the artsy loner with a rebellious side, flouting the rules to gain some semblance of control over a highly regimented life of pill schedules and pre-planned recreation time. She’s the OCD-adjacent Type A personality who clings to the rules at the expense of feeling truly alive. We know all this because the characters define themselves this way nearly verbatim, but meant-to-be is meant-to-be, and the actors make us want them to be happy.
The goodwill built up by Sprouse (who’s doing James Dean in scare quotes) and Richardson (who keeps teaching audiences that sunny girls with bubbly dispositions can nonetheless contain profundity and depth of feeling) goes a long way, but not far enough to absolve the film of its many minor sins. Among them: a gay BFF disposed of when the descending arc of the plot calls for it; a black nurse who is made to utter the phrase, “Oh, hell naw!”; and dialogue that may have very well been written by Gmail’s auto-suggestion feature. We may want to overlook these things, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there.
The rom-com genre succeeds primarily on the basis of giving its audience what they already know they want, and its distant cousin the rom-traum follows the same rubric. This film is a delivery system for pathos, a machine that creates sentiment, and it performs its intended function smoothly. Still, like Stella and Will, we’re left wanting something more. These kids can’t settle for surviving – they have to live. Yet just as they deserve a fuller life, we deserve a fuller piece of art.