Among french fries and soda cups, Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) hangs out with her best friends in her bedroom. They gossip about crushes, debate a bikini choice, and get excited about a fieldtrip—one that Stella won’t be joining. As the friends leave, more details of the room are revealed: a hospital bed, bottles of medicine, and a “wash hands” sign.
Stella sighs and puts back on her nasal cannula. As the silence drags on, she is visibly distraught, but she smiles, puts on a brave face, and begins recording for her YouTube channel: a vlog dedicated to her experiences as a cystic fibrosis patient.
While the premise runs dangerously close to clichés, Five Feet Apart is packed with serious, quiet, gut-wrenching moments, especially surrounding Richardson and her character. Stella’s entire life has been set up around closely following restrictions due to her CF, something that she intensifies after the death of her older sister. She begins being extremely meticulous, organizing medical carts, writing to-do lists, and planning her entire life to the minute.
But her boundaries are put to the test when she meets Will (Cole Sprouse), another CF patient at the hospital. Will, whose bacteria makes him ineligible for a lung transplant and whose only hope is an experimental procedure, ignores any medical recommendation, driving Stella absolutely mad. They strike a deal to do their treatments together, and ultimately, they fall in love. But they can never touch each other: due to a risk of cross-infection, CF patients need to be at a six-foot distance from each other at all times.
The main problem is that Five Feet Apart struggles to stand out against other films of its genre. Like many teenage romance movies, it is filled with tropes, from the usual montage of getting ready for a first date to the desire to risk it all for love. Although the representation of cystic fibrosis on film certainly deserves recognition, it is impossible not to feel that the film lacks originality, becoming just another story of teens falling in love in spite of sickness. To make matters worse, it sometimes seems like the film itself doesn’t care about standing out. When Stella gives her emotional speech on her vlog about not letting CF control her life, M83’s “Wait” plays in the background. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is part of the finale of The Fault In Our Stars (2014), the adaptation of the John Green novel of two teenagers with cancer falling in love. It is frustrating: Stella is giving an incredibly genuine speech of finally being the thief and not just letting CF steal everything from her. It should be one of the highlights of the film, but instead, it is completely undermined, merely evoking a feeling of déjà vu.
However, as much as she is stuck in a trope-ridden plot, Stella seems genuine, escaping the one-dimensional, pre-packaged personalities of most teenage romance protagonist models. She has particular quirks, such as organizing her medicine cart methodically, but her quirks aren’t the only aspect relevant to her character. She begins rebelling after meeting Will, deciding to be five feet apart instead of the safe six, but avoids the all-too-common feeling in romance movies that her life somehow started when she met him—she had friends, family, vlogs, and dreams long before a boy showed up in her life. Even if she knows she is dying, that doesn’t make her somehow wise beyond her years—she isn’t reciting metaphors and quoting unknown books to prove how smart she is.
If anything, Stella feels like an actual person, something that is somehow rare in these kinds of films. She looks whatever way she likes, whether dressed up or frizzy-haired as she carries around her teddy bear. She hates being stuck in the hospital, but she tries to make the most of her situation, whether that’s choosing to spend her treatment sessions to clear her lungs by being playfully hanging upside down or decorating her walls with artwork. It’s small moments like these that make her seem real, not just another character fabricated out of a pre-made model.
After discovering what happened to her older sister, Will describes Stella as having survivor’s guilt. Stella has always been sick, so she prepared herself to die her whole life. What she wasn’t ready for was for everything else around her to die first starting with her sister in a climbing accident, then her parents’ marriage. It’s a sick irony, where she manages to be the last one standing while everything else fades off. It’s yet another interesting wrinkle, even if it is a sad one, to how original her character is: that she was the one ready to do the leaving, but not to be the one left.
Richardson’s performance is stellar in these moments. Throughout most of the film, she is visibly the girl holding herself together, desperately trying to remain put together despite everything trying to tear her apart. When Stella breaks, Richardson tears up, voice trembles, figure crumbles. Even in scenes where she can’t speak due to breathing equipment, her eyes water, transmitting all of her pain. It is heartbreaking to watch, but it is a testament to Richardson’s talent.
As Stella, Richardson is simply captivating. She is easy to laugh along with and to sympathize with her tears. When Stella falls in love with Will, it’s impossible not to believe in it given Richardson’s chemistry with Sprouse. It is easy to start wishing for a miracle, hoping they will somehow end up together in spite of their predicament. Every line, every look, every almost-touch between them has so much heart behind it. Everything about them, especially the aching forced distance between them, feels all too real.
“We need the touch of the one we love almost as much as we need air to breathe,” Stella says in her vlogs about Will. Even if the line is part-cliché, part clever, Richardson makes it heartfelt, like an actual declaration of love. Five Feet Apart is probably not heading for any Academy Awards, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But for any fans of teenage romance dramas or those in the mood for a bittersweet film, it is certainly not a bad pick.