Hospitals are the last place on earth you might expect to find romance. After all, they’re filled with suffering and worry about the potential for dying — not exactly the setting for thoughts of endless love.
Yet, they are also inherently dramatic places, as medical staff members nobly work to save lives and patients bravely hope, pray and strive to get better. The film “Five Feet Apart” tries to mine this intense terrain for a tear-jerking teen romance that manages to find plenty to say to viewers of all ages.
The film stars Haley Lu Richardson as Stella, a teenage girl who has battled cystic fibrosis (also called “CF” in the film) her entire life. The debilitating lung disease causes its victims to produce far too much mucus, and over time worsens to the point where they will choke to death if they can’t get a lung transplant. And even if they do get a transplant, the new lungs typically work for only about five years, basically serving as a way to buy time for scientists to hopefully find a cure rather than providing a full new lease on life.
Despite the many limitations that CF places on her ability to engage in most life activities, Stella is ambitious and maintains a lengthy bucket list of her hopes and dreams. One day, she notices a new boy named Will (Cole Sprouse) down the hall from her in the special CF wing she’s living in long-term.
Even as Will — who’s in an experimental drug treatment program that has long odds of succeeding — makes it clear that he believes striving to get better is futile, he is smitten by Stella and wants to draw her. Stella convinces Will to let her lead him in maintaining his medicine regimen and other key factors for his health in exchange for the right to draw her, and slowly a romance that also provides many philosophical lessons is born.
The biggest challenge facing the pair is that CF patients must remain at least six feet apart, because germ transmission between patients is particularly dangerous. But in the name of love and some measure of control over her life, Stella declares that she and Will will live five feet apart instead.
“Five” is a quiet film, lacking in car chases, gunfights and intergalactic superhero warfare. Yet its willingness to buck the tide of all the noise that fills our multiplexes and speak softly and intensely to viewers’ emotions is daring in its own right.
This is a film that can feel claustrophobic at times, since it almost entirely takes place amid the halls and rooms of a hospital. But director Justin Baldoni and the writing team of Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who are all making their feature-film debuts) aren’t lacking in imagination, but rather simply providing a real sense of the loneliness inherent in long hospital stays and the ways in which patients find ways to make the best of their situations. As someone who overcame a chronic illness that placed me in the hospital over 30 times in 12 years, I can attest that they capture every aspect of the nerve-wracking experience perfectly.
Richardson and Sprouse make a cute couple, but the world-weary wisdom they’ve been forced to accept as they contemplate life, death and whether there’s an afterlife far earlier than most of their peers makes them a compelling one too. This is a film that hinges almost completely on the strengths of the two leads, and they deliver by showing a love that is selfless, true and profound.
Ultimately, “Five Feet Apart” provides a welcome respite from the superhero bombast of “Captain Marvel” and the upcoming horrors of Jordan Peele’s terror-fest “Us.” It won’t blow you away or leave you with a sense of awe, but it will speak to your heart, and these days that’s a beautiful gift indeed.