I was interested in this film from the moment I saw the trailer. Not only did it look like an interesting young adult romance but it also dealt with cystic fibrosis. In my day to day life, I’m familiar with the disease working in the healthcare industry so one of my questions was how well were they going to deal with the struggles of the disease? Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects one out of 3,000 newborns, Long-term issues can include difficulty breathing and coughing up mucus as a result of frequent lung infections with the median life expectancy of 37 to 40 years. With all that information, I found the filmmakers did a stellar job with research, making a film with authenticity, combined with incredible acting, it made the movie charming and poignant.
Written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis and directed by Justin Baldoni, Five Feet Apart tells the story of a young woman, Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson, a local born in Phoenix) who lives with cystic fibrosis, spending her days on treatment regimens and in and out of the hospital. During one of her stays, she meets another young man with CF, Will Newman (Cole Sprouse). The pair fall for each other but their difficulty lies in the fact that the bacteria within their lungs can be transmitted to the other and cause their disease to worsen. The title of the film comes from the fact that they must remain six feet apart at all times. Instead, the pair decides to live life, not just from treatment to treatment and take back one foot. Helped by Stella’s best friend, Poe (Moises Arias), they pursue their romance but will they stop when cautioned by their nurse, Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) or will their romance lead them both into danger?
One of the factors that leads me to appreciate this film is the level of authenticity and research that went into the disease. Cystic Fibrosis isn’t known to everyone. While the treatments and prognosis are available online, what the creators did was simulate the authentic experience these young people deal with on a day to day basis, especially when an infection takes hold and they end up in the hospital. The drug regimens, the breathing treatments, the lung transplant option, all of these are a reality for those struggling with cystic fibrosis. Yet, despite the disease being the highlight of the film, it didn’t feel like crutch either. The young adults in the film felt like real people who were handling a very real situation, one in which they must struggle with treatments and how to have a real life around their diagnosis. The treatment of that reality was well handled and realistic.
The romance was believable as well. When you have young people struggling with this kind of prognosis and the impact it has on their lives, they’re going to look around them for others who can understand and empathize with what they’re going through. It is reasonable to see a pair of young teens looking to each other for comfort and romance. While some of the situations surrounding them were very much Hollywood vision of hospitals, the romance itself was beautiful and charming, as the pair try to figure out how to spend time together by synching up their treatments, using their cell phones to video chat or using a pole to keep their prescribed space. While at times, the romance makes your heart break a bit, it is ultimately what makes me love this film.
The actors are absolutely the best element of the movie. Haley Lu Richardson is charming, sweet and dynamic as Stella. She brought a vibrancy to the role, despite the ever-present disease and her upbeat, positive attitude was not out of line, even as you know she deals with the reality of the disease because there are many patients who keep that type of attitude in the face of overwhelming circumstances. In addition, the writing and the acting illustrate moments when the character deals with depression, grief, and anger. Haley Lu captured all of those emotions beautifully. Her chemistry with Cole Sprouse was phenomenal. Cole is best known for his role on Riverdale as Jughead but this part catapults him into leading man material. He is heartbreaking, thoughtful and is able to captivate with subtle emotions. He brings you to tears but it is done in such an amazing performance, that you don’t mind. The breakout for me, though, was Moises Arias as Poe. He was decidedly part of the comedy relief for the movie but more than that, he manages to steal every scene he’s in with his humor and excellent performance. All of the young adults in the movie do a fantastic job.
If I were going to pick apart any aspect of the film, there are some details that Hollywood puts in just to move the story but they fall apart and take away from the authenticity. The young people end up having the run of the hospital. I’ve been in hospitals a time or two and that is decidedly a situation that isn’t going to happen. While it makes it easier for the romance to happen, it does lessen the believability. In addition, no hospital would allow any nurse to walk into a sick child’s room and not wear a mask and gloves, in case of carrying an airborne infection, especially those struggling with cystic fibrosis. It just wouldn’t happen. Plus, at the beginning of the film, one of the nurses gives away private health information. This furthers the plot but in real life, this wouldn’t be likely to happen. The nurse could get fired, fined, and get the hospital in hot water.
In addition, the film has some predictable scenes. We know these kids are sick and we know their odds, so you expect some tragic moment at some point. While there are some unexpected moments, the scenes surrounding some of the saddest moments, are not really unexpected and there is again some Hollywood set up to make it all come together. That said, that inevitability, that weight of the situation, is what makes the film so emotional and heart wrenching.
If you love films that make you cry, that is emotional, I would recommend this one. Even more, if you want to educate yourself about cystic fibrosis, this film is well researched and thoughtful in the reality of life with this genetic disorder. It might break your heart but the beauty of the acting and the story will teach you a lot about connection, the need for human touch, and the spirit of those living with this kind of struggle.
Rating: 4 out of 5 pool cues.