I’m not sure what attracts audiences to stories about sick or dying teenagers, but they usually end up being crazy popular. John Greene’s “The Fault In Our Stars” is still the ultimate young adult tale to which all others are compared, and I still ugly cry each time I read the book or watch the movie. Jenny Downham’s 2007 “Before I Die” is mostly likely a book I’ll never be able to read again, though.
Last week, the newest installment in the dying teenager genre hit theaters when “Five Feet Apart” debuted. Interestingly enough, the creative forces behind the film wrote a screenplay AND a novelization at the same time. (The novel came out in November 2018, which is a super clever way to drum up interest in your film.)
The film stars Haley Lu Richardson as a young girl named Stella, who’s lived her life with cystic fibrosis. There’s no cure for CF, and her disease is terminal. Stella won’t grow old. She may never be able to vote or drink legally. Often, young girls dream about things like weddings or careers, but Stella just dreams of living. She loves babies, but she knows she’ll never have one of her own. It’s a sad life, but it’s her reality.
Stella spends much of her time in a hospital, which is where we find her when “Five Feet Apart” begins. She’s been admitted due to sickness, which is common for her. As her friends decide on the perfect bathing suit for an upcoming trip, Stella’s plans include organizing her medicine cart. Stella suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and her life is measured by to-do lists. It’s orderly and focused.
Will (Cole Sprouse) completely destroys her world. He’s reckless, sarcastic and couldn’t care less about following any rules, even those that could save his life. Will is another CFer, but he also has a species of bacteria called b. cepacia, which has severely limited his options. CFers are all waiting for a lung transplant, which will give them another five years. Will’s bacteria means he can’t have that transplant. It also makes him extremely dangerous to people like Stella.
There’s one more CFer at the hospital who plays an important part in the story: Poe (Moises Arias). He’s known Stella since they were kids, and he’s terrified of relationships because he knows he’s just going to have to say goodbye to the ones he loves. Worse, when he’s 18, he’ll lose full coverage and will have to start shouldering the bills that will pile up quickly. He wonders how he can ask anyone to shoulder that burden with him.
To say “Five Feet Apart” is heavy is an understatement. I mean, it’s a film about dying kids, which is probably some of the hardest cinema for a lot of folks to watch. They aren’t going to live to be old and gray, or even middle-aged.
But, honestly, the heaviest part about “Five Feet Apart” isn’t the fact these teenagers won’t make it until they’re 25. Or even old enough to drink, probably. It’s the relationships they build with each other … from a distance. The film is called this because CFers have to stay six feet from each other. Any closer and they risk catching bacteria or an illness that could kill them. Stella and Will shrink the distance to five feet. It’s a big deal for Stella, who has spent so much of her life organizing doses, taking pills and worrying about dying. In other words, she’s forgotten about actually living.
“Five Feet Apart” isn’t really anything new. We’ve seen dying teenager films before, and this is another one. What sells the film is Richardson and Sprouse. Richardson is a breath of fresh air. She’s sunshine in an oxygen mask. Her smile radiates from the screen, and she makes you feel all the feelings. Joy, sadness, that wispy rush of first love. And Sprouse. Oh, Cole Sprouse. He’s come a long way from early roles in “Big Daddy” — he was the kid! — or Disney Channel shows. Sprouse’s current claim to fame is as Jughead Jones on the CW’s “Riverdale,” but as Will, he tugs on every heart string you have.
Sure, it’s sappy and maybe the storyline is overplayed, but this film hits you in that squishy place where your emotions live. I cried multiple times throughout the film and I called my BFF afterwards because I was dumb enough to see it by myself. (WARNING: DON’T GO ALONE!)
Bottom line: Bring tissues and be ready for something amazing.