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Review: ‘Five Feet Apart’ elevates the sick teen genre with a poignant love story

(L-R) - Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in “FIVE FEET APART.” Credit: Alfonso Bresciani/CBS Fil
Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in the movie “Five Feet Apart.”
(Alfonso Bresciani / CBS Films / Lionsgate)

The cystic fibrosis-themed romantic drama “Five Feet Apart” feels like a real evolution in the sick teen movie genre, because it’s actually a great movie that just happens to be about sick teens, and it doesn’t condescend or try to cheer up anyone. There are no bucket lists — just an authentic portrait that feels real and lived-in, anchored by a pair of excellent performances by Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse.

The story is a take on “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring a pair of young, doomed, star-crossed lovers carrying on a forbidden romance. Both Stella (Richardson) and Will (Sprouse) have cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic respiratory disorder with a short life expectancy. Patients with CF have to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from each other to avoid dangerous cross-infection, a unique challenge for a pair of 17-year olds falling in love for the first time.

Director Justin Baldoni directed a short documentary about Claire Wineland, a young woman with cystic fibrosis who documented her life on YouTube, and she served as consultant on “Five Feet Apart” before she died in 2018. While the film is not based on her life, screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis have crafted a screenplay that captures the perspective she expressed online, blending a zest for life with gallows humor and an acceptance of death.

The script is a very Hollywood-ized teen romance, with some over-the-top moments to ramp up the stakes, yet the film remains grounded in the realities of the disease. Most importantly, “Five Feet Apart” has a real voice, and a point of view, and there’s no better actor than the ebullient Richardson to embody the attitude Wineland stood for. Richardson can do just about anything, and her performance in “Five Feet Apart” demonstrates a new depth to her range. She brings a knowing soulfulness to every aspect of Stella’s journey, from her grief and rage, to the way she reluctantly lets herself fall for Will. Sprouse, as well as Moises Arias, who plays her best friend, Poe, another patient, rise to her level. It’s especially satisfying to watch Sprouse transform from a snarky, too-cool-for-school CF patient to a young man who finally has hope and some skin in the game, if not for himself, then for her.

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Baldoni, best known as an actor, makes his feature directorial debut with “Five Feet Apart,” and it’s incredibly assured, deeply effective filmmaking. Set entirely in a hospital, he captures the sense of place — the culture, the people, the geography — and it never feels claustrophobic or stifling. Baldoni brings a rhythm to these drab, fluorescent-lit hallways, with pop songs driving the pace.

The 5-feet-apart rule (Stella “steals” a foot back) creates an inherently potent tension on screen, where something as simple as extending a hand might cause the audience to instinctively flinch. A scene at the hospital pool where Will and Stella have their first date is electric with energy, as the young lovers yearn for each other, the length of a pool cue keeping them at an achingly safe distance.

The poignant message of “Five Feet Apart” is never far as these characters attempt to experience all life has to offer while struggling to survive. Will loves to say, “It’s just life, it’ll be over before you know it.” While he delivers it with cynicism, it becomes a mantra that takes on new meaning every time it’s uttered. It’s life, and it will be over before we know it — why waste a second?

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Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘Five Feet Apart’

Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements, language and suggestive material

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: In general release

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