I grew up in the golden era of sick-lit films. Ansel Elgort with his constant un-smoked cigarette as a metaphor in The Fault in Our Stars (2014)? The conceived-as-a-bone-marrow-donor-for-her-terminally-ill-sister Anna and the subsequent tragic outcome in My Sister’s Keeper (2009)? Give me, give me, give me.
I lived off that melodrama for weeks. Justin Baldoni’s Five Feet Apart would have thrived in this time – two attractive cystic fibrosis patients who can’t get within five feet of each other lest they catch each other’s deadly bacteria fall in love? C’mon.
Our protagonist Stella is brilliantly portrayed by Hayley Lu Richardson. She (concerningly) makes OCD look cute. She wears over-sized cardigans and her hair is perfectly mussed, and wait for it – her tragic backstory goes deeper than her incurable, life-limiting disease (oh how good, how perfectly heartbreaking!). She treats the hospital staff life family, sticks to her regimen like a straight A student and is a tech whiz – she has created an app to help chronically ill kids keep track of their treatment.
In walks Will (Cole Sprouse), Stella’s textbook foil. His hair is floppy, his wit is quick and he trudges around in perfectly worn-in lace-up leather boots – he is everything my teenage self would have frothed over. My adult self, however, cringed hard at his constant self-deprecating humour, his over-the-top existentialism and his deliberate disregard of the cystic fibrosis drug trial he is participating in.
Because forbidden love is the juiciest fruit on the romance trope tree, Stella and Will fall quickly (very quickly) for each other. What ensues is a teen love-story defined by the denial of touch. The film makes living in this hospital look fun – hanging out in a games room, sneaky night time swims, clandestine dinner parties in the cafeteria.
Five Feet Apart is a slow burn. Excruciatingly slow for people well-versed in sick-lit, just sitting there waiting for someone (usually the healthier one) to die. But as soon as it hits the third act, Five Feet Apart does everything in its power to diverge radically from its predecessors. It’s a kicking, screaming riot of twists and turns – it’s almost hard to keep up. I exclaimed ‘No!’ at every surprise evolvement. No no no no. It didn’t escape the confines of its genre, but it sure was a wild ride watching it try.
If you’re keen for a film to manipulate hot salty tears from you, hit up Five Feet Apart. A hot tip: skip the first five minutes to avoid the cringiest spoiler of an opening scene I think I’ve ever seen.
The film partnered with Claire’s Place Foundation; A charity to emotionally and financially support families struggling with Cystic Fibrosis. Both actors and director worked closely to assure accuracy with the depiction of cystic fibrosis in the film.