Justin Baldoni’s Five Feet Apart is the ideal manifestation of raw emotion, forbidden young love and romantic cliches. But as well as creating the ideal teenage love story, Baldoni shines a light on the devastating effects of the life-threatening disorder that is cystic fibrosis (CF).
Haley Lu Richardson forges a meaningful connection with the audience through her enchanting portrayal of Stella Grant, a seventeen-year-old girl with CF who, quite predictably, falls for the rebellious yet extremely sick Will Newman, played by none other than Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse. The two CF patients find themselves in a love triangle with their own conditions; Will’s bacterial infection is life-threatening to himself and anyone who comes into contact with him. So, like all CF patients, Stella and Will must remain six feet apart at all times.
The film goes beyond a predictable hospital romance; as well as exploring the difficulties of living with cystic fibrosis, the film further delves into the diverse complexities of navigating life as an adolescent. Themes of life, loss, sexuality, divorce and family remind us that the characters are not so dissimilar from us: in essence, they are normal teenagers who are battling normal teenage problems. Stella’s internal struggle between her head and heart leads us to understand how six feet apart becomes five while simultaneously unpacking the complexity of her character.
Stella actually uses social media as a platform to spread awareness for cystic fibrosis and inspire her viewers to live life to the fullest–seeing as CF prevents her from doing so. The teenage patients, like many of us, are addicted to their phones and social media. Set in a hospital, the patients’ rooms are decorated with their own posters and photos, reflecting their personalities and interests, and further humanising the characters beyond the scope of the movie screen.
Despite the anticipated amount of romantic cliches, the film is full of suspense and emotion. There are moments where you forget about Stella and Will’s cystic fibrosis and you’re left thinking about how they’re just teenagers in love. But these moments are short lived when the five feet apart rule becomes dangerously close to being broken, resulting in collective gasps and an abundance of tears from the audience.
The concept of love in this film isn’t purely romantic; it is platonically shared between friends, family members and in this case, hospital staff. The film explores Stella’s relationships with her best friend and fellow CF patient Poh, played by Moises Arias (most of us will recognise him as Rico from Hannah Montana), her nurse Barb (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) and her sister Abby (Sophia Bernard). As the film progresses, the complexities of Stella’s optimistic yet controlling character slowly emerge; her problems extend far beyond her malfunctioning lungs. Will describes her as a “sick girl with survivor’s guilt”.
The choice of actors most definitely makes Five Feet Apart more appealing to the young adults and teenagers of 2019. In saying that, the on-screen chemistry between Richardson and Sprouse contributes to the authenticity of the film; the relationship formed is a believable one. Further, the ability of Richardson in particular to unpack the diverse emotions of her character results in the film feeling quite genuine; you experience the moment and Stella’s emotions, you laugh and cry with her. The characters ultimately help contrast the harsh reality of teenagers battling illness against the optimistic yet often forbidden nature of adolescent love. Five Feet Apart most definitely serves its purpose as the ultimate tearjerker; your eyes will undoubtedly be clouded with tears as the film comes to an end, but not for the reasons you might think. You’re left torn between rooting for Stella and Will’s love and praying for their lives.