4 out of 10
Haley Lu Richardson as Stella Grant
Directed by Justin Baldoni
Five Feet Apart Review:
The line between affecting sentiment and mawkish sentimentality is so fine it has tripped up most studio drama directors at one time or another. It seems to come mostly when the filmmakers stop dealing with people as they are and begin trying to imagine them as they think their audience would want them. Characters which are not only wise beyond their years but speak of things they cannot have experienced yet, characters who are cynical and moody, characters that more what someone hopes are interesting rather than what actually is interesting. Characters like the hopelessly flat, obnoxious sketches filling Five Feet Apart (when it has characters), an earnestly empty attempt at pulling feeling from terminal disease which should make a the most callous Hollywood producer feel dirty and cheap, much less it’s creative team.
If Five Feet Apart offers up anything it is some clarity and reality about cystic fibrousous, the respiratory illness its major characters are attempting to live with. Specifically artistic, controlling, luminous Stella (Richardson), a teen CFer confined to her hospital floor due to a sudden flare up in the disease while she waits for a lung transplant. Her carefully modulated routine is thrown into disarray by the arrival of the handsome, gloomy Will (Sprouse), a near-adult who can’t wait for his 18th birthday so that he can finally give up on his treatments and die on his own terms. Forced into close proximity the two quickly spar on outlooks on life, death and disease, and just as quickly fall in love. Or would if they weren’t forced to keep at least 6 feet distance between them at all times.
It’s the kind of set-up which could easily embrace stereotypes and guess what? Five Feet Apart does; in fact not so much embrace them as death grip them in an unshakeable bear hug. Stella and Will would not be out of place in any teen drama series of the 90s with their knowing ways and sardonic dialogue. They have less in common with anything resembling human beings than they do with TV characters, seeming to have been developed from a collective unconscious which has absorbed those kinds of characters to the point where the filmmakers can’t tell them apart from real people anymore. They’re copies of copies (like the ‘jock’ and the ‘nerd’ of any conventional teen soap) and have the definition to match. Television can somewhat survive that as the length of the form requires at some point developing them (whether they can survive it or not). Five Feet Apart’s endless two-hour runtime has no where to hide and no time to turn its caricatures into people.
Not do they have other characters to bounce off of. With it’s focus entirely on the CF ward and its inhabitants, the scope of Five Feet Apart is so reduced we never get to see anything but Stella and Will except for occasionally interruptions by the ward nurse Barb (Gregory) and Stella’s long-time friend Poe (Arias). That is a lot to put on Stella and Will’s shoulders and they just aren’t up to it. Stella at least benefits from strong work by Richardson who shows off considerable humanity and charisma even when wrestling with the worst lines. If anything makes Five Feet Apart worth watching it’s Richardson. Sprouse on the other hand is given the most (intentionally) unlikeable character which neither performance nor script are ever able to redeem. And they’re given no escape; neither appears to have parents (beyond the occasional cameo) or adults in their lives, giving them nothing to cut their edges and polish them. Even a diamond needs something beyond itself in order to become a diamond; there’s nothing here but coal.
That’s not entirely fair, director Baldoni does quite a bit with a story set entirely within 4 or 5 rooms, but he’s hemmed in by his constrictions. In this case the limitations don’t make for art, they make for boredom and eventually resentment. Nor is it particularly difficult to imagine this story as a play, one digging deep into Stell and Will’s psyche’s while also tenderly probing the themes of life, death and love. In fact, that sort of imagining is probability what you’ll be doing while waiting for Five Feet Apart to end. I did.