Hospitals are, above all other things, lonely places. You might have a large care team on hand, a bevy of nurses coming in at all hours, and great family/friend support. But at the end of the day (or more precisely, in the middle of the night), you are alone in your pain and suffering -- and anxiety. No matter how many people are around you, you are the one ravaged by disease, chemicals and medications, your body that has to endure blood draws, spinal taps, chemotherapy sessions and the like. If you have the misfortune to have to spend substantive time in a hospital, you quickly come to learn, no matter how many people give you support, in some ways, you're still very much on your own.
If there is one moment in Justin Baldoni's doomed-teen-romance that actually resonates beyond standard melodramatic boilerplate, it is when Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), our protagonist, a chipper, OCD young woman with cystic fibrosis, forced to spend extended time in a hospital, has to face the night before a surgical procedure that will, by dint of general anesthetic, put her delicate lungs at risk for which she might not awaken. Clutching her sheets and a stuffed panda bear, staring into the abyss of her darkened hospital room, the moment is emblematic of that particular branch of lonely despair. It's just too bad the rest of the film doesn't come anywhere close to that singular moment.
Five Feet Apart
79 Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani, Moises Arias, Parminder Nagra, Gary Weeks, Emily Baldoni
Director: Justin Baldoni
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, language and suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Apparently, Hollywood has another dire problem on top of everything else: They are running out of dramatic, life-threatening diseases with which to inflict upon fetching teens falling in love. Stella spends her days taking her meds, firing off quips at her kindly nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), hanging out with her friend Poe (Moises Arias), another sick teen living at the hospital, and keeping a vlog about the disease that documents her endless treatments, as she waits for a lung donor.
She meets Will (Cole Sprouse, whom you might recognize from a truly nauseating Disney series from a decade ago), naturally, at the hospital. Also afflicted with cystic fibrosis, Will has the dark wavy hair and high cheekbones of a teen idol, and, keeping with his dangerously desirable rebellious streak, he is a talented artist, cool enough to ignore the various medications and procedures of his experimental protocol. Instead, he sits up on the roof of the hospital in the dead of winter, dangling his legs over the edge to prove how little he cares about his own mortality.
Thus ensues a long and strained sort of courtship, with the pair more or less pushing and pulling in each other's opposite direction as the narrative calls for, while keeping forever six feet apart (the film's title comes from the manically careful Stella's eventual compromise). Of course they fall hard in love, and face the tragedy of their lives with dramatic aplomb and good humor, until the night pretty much everything goes kablooey simultaneously: After the film's more measured first two acts, the third act builds into an insane crescendo of melodramatic operations. Seriously, we move from a character's surprise party, to a terrible tragedy, to a dangerous response, to an almost unimaginable hope for a future within about 25 minutes of screen time.
Pacing and melodrama aside, the film has a bigger problem on its hands than its questionable narrative logistics. According to group of health professionals I spoke with after the screening, it's also shockingly inaccurate about its chosen topic. For one thing, CF patients aren't even allowed out of their hospital rooms, let alone able to meet and hang in an atrium, or a game room as if they were living in a college dorm; for another, despite the film's romantic fatalism, it's not nearly as immediately lethal as Stella leads us to believe. A quick check of medical stats suggests life expectancies for CF patients to be well in their 40s, with new, continuing treatments providing even more optimism for the future. Alas, screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis are so fixated on increasing the dramatics, it makes cystic fibrosis to be a teen death sentence, like something out of Logan's Run.
As a saving's grace, Richardson's performance keeps things moving along, especially in the beginning, when the young actress actually eschews the young actor penchant for over-emoting, to produce a more subtle and believable performance. Stella, whose beloved older sister died the year before in an accident, has some psychological depth, feeling the weight of her now-separated parents' grief, and trying as best she can to stay alive in order to keep them from totally falling apart, but in the end, the film sells out her character to end with a dramatic flourish. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say, for a hospital that otherwise attempts to follow standard health protocols, the excruciating emotional climax is so ridiculously dangerous, a leech-treating hospital from the Middle Ages would have thought twice.
MovieStyle on 03/15/2019
Print Headline: Five Feet Apart