‘Five Feet Apart’ Is a Heartbreaking Teen Romance

For his directorial debut “Five Feet Apart,” “Jane the Virgin” actor Justin Baldoni challenges himself by telling a love story set in the least romantic of places, a hospital. The story centers around around Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who is battling the devastating genetic disease cystic fibrosis. As she has always known her time on earth is limited (CF patients currently have a life expectancy of 37.5 years), Stella has a maturity beyond her years. When she’s not looking after her own medicine regiment, she’s reading the works of Shakespeare, studying or posting videos on her own YouTube channel, clips that are educational while also letting her vibrant personality shine through. A bout of bronchitis has put her back in the hospital, a place that she has spent so much of her childhood in that her best friend is another regularly CF patient, Poe (Moises Arias).

The title “Five Feet Apart” comes from the “six feet rule,” a guideline set by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation that states that two people with the disease must be kept at a minimum of six feet apart to minimize the risk of cross infection. Although this decree hinders her bonding with Poe — “This disease is a prison!” he plaintively says at one point — It doesn’t have a profound effect on Stella’s life until she meets Will (Cole Sprouse), a brooding fellow CF patient. Initially, the pair are like oil and water, as she takes issues with his careless attitude, but predictably, they fall in love.

While Stella is on the waiting list for a lung transplant, a surgery that could prolong her life an extra five years, Will is dealing with a serious bacterial infection for which he is receiving experimental treatment. Stella inserts herself into his life by taking charge of his drug regiment. This is extreme, even for a type A person, but sort of makes sense when one considers the free time these young people have cooped up in sterile environments. Not that they’re completely left to their own devices, as they have Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a nurse that cares to a fault, and Dr. Hamid (Parminder Nagra, who deserves a honorary medical degree at this point) looking after them. Stella’s need to control also comes out of a family tragedy that occured one year prior, the details of which are slowly revealed.

“Five Feet Apart” contains multiple tropes found in melodramatic films that deal with terminal illness, particularly in the home stretch; However, Baldoni, along with writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, had the challenge of creating a passionate romance without virtually any physical intimacy. They find creative ways for Stella and Will to express their feelings for each other, and they ultimately redefine what it means to be affectionate and sexy. Richardson especially gives a powerful performance, balancing Stella’s playfulness with the more serious aspects of her personality. At the end of it all, Stella and Will’s tale illustrates what really matters when it comes to romance and even life in general.

The production design and lighting teams also deserves props for turning a hospital into an almost whimsical place to fall in love. Spaces like an atrium, NICU, and a playroom pop with the right lighting, color and prop choices. A hospital pool, presumably used for aquatic therapy, makes for a particularly enchanting setting.

All of this leads to the inevitable weepy ending. It is emotional manipulation at its finest, but it works, as the viewer cannot help but care about these characters; Stella because she has so much spark and life, and Will because she loves him. Even Poe transcends beyond being the one-note gay bestie, as Arias plays him with so much warmth and soul. Although there is an ambiguous resolution, it ends where it needs to, on a hopeful and life-affirming note.

Five Feet Apart” opens March 15 in theaters nationwide.