A tearjerking romance centered around two teenagers living with cystic fibrosis, first-time feature director Justin Baldoni’s “Five Feet Apart” is ultimately little more than a cover band treatment of “The Fault in Our Stars.” But as far as cover bands go, at least it has a hell of a frontwoman in Haley Lu Richardson. Fresh off of memorable supporting parts in “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Support the Girls,” Richardson gives a star turn every bit as charismatic and assured as the film is formulaic and forgettable, bringing soul, style and nuance to a character that could have easily been a condescending caricature.
An exceptional talent in a sea of well-meaning adequacy, Richardson plays Stella, a bright, wryly optimistic high schooler who has been dealing with cystic fibrosis since childhood. When we meet her, she’s just landed in the hospital for yet another extended stay, and wastes no time decorating every inch of her room, organizing her pills into perfect color-coded rows, and putting together detailed to-do lists for each day. Designing apps from bed and livestreaming her treatment sessions as she waits for a lung transplant, she’s turned her corner of the hospital into something of a second home, maintaining a running dialogue with maternal head nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and her deferential gay best friend Poe (Moises Arias), a fellow longtime patient.
But this time, there’s a new kid in the ward: Sarcastic, vaguely rebellious, smolderingly handsome Will (Cole Sprouse) has arrived to undergo an experimental clinical trial, and his cavalier attitude toward his own treatment raises the hyper-disciplined Stella’s hackles. Of course, the film conspires to thrust them together almost immediately, and they warm to one another through a hurried on-again-off-again courtship, striking quid-pro-quo deals, FaceTiming each other well into the night, and inevitably hitting speed bumps as they brush up against each another’s secrets and traumas.
There is, however, a much bigger obstacle to their relationship than the typical rom-com crises: “CFers,” as the characters refer to themselves, are perpetually told to observe the “six-foot rule,” keeping a safe distance from other people with cystic fibrosis to avoid cross-infection. This is a particular concern when it comes to Will, who is infected with the dangerous bacteria B. cepacia, vastly increasing the risk to Stella should she get too close to him. So not only is their budding romance haunted by the very real specter of early mortality, they can’t even hold hands, let alone kiss.
(In case you’re wondering why the film is titled “Five Feet Apart” when the rules call for six, the script does eventually offer a reason for the missing foot. It doesn’t, however, make a whole lot of sense.)
The screenplay, written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, can’t help but clutter up the works with contrivances and clunky dialogue throughout. The film’s handling of Poe falls back on some rather unfortunate “gay best friend” tropes that one might have hoped we’d long since left behind, and its soap-operatic third act offers a jarring pileup of melodramatic twists, some of which drew literal guffaws from the teenage members of an early screening audience. (Several of them went on to openly weep at the film’s denouement, to be fair.) But the film’s middle passage is able to generate genuine sweetness, largely due to Richardson’s low-key magnetism.
When the hesitant couple finally steals away to go on a date (holding a pool cue between them to keep their distance, as well as to serve as a source of surrogate contact) Baldoni cultivates some real sparks, and even a hint of chastely sensual heat, despite rarely leaving the hospital setting. It’s in these scenes – much more so than in its well-intentioned but quasi-academic sequences explaining the challenges of cystic fibrosis – that “Five Feet Apart” manages to humanize the effects of the disease most tangibly and affectingly. If only the rest of the film had followed suit, it might have risen to the level of its star.