Released: 28th March
Seen: 30th March
The Teen Romance genre is not a genre made for critics. They’re never really meant for anyone other than a very specific demographic, never have loftier goals besides giving people the feels and usually are variations on a trope with some mild set dressing. Nicholas Sparks literally put his kids through college writing books that played specifically to this audience and there is a large fanbase for this kind of film. I, meanwhile, am a 31-year-old gay man who has become cynical about these films due to overexposure so the question becomes, can I put aside my biases against this genre and be fair? Well, I tried but it doesn’t help that the movie sucks.
Five Feet Apart follows Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman with cystic fibrosis and a case of cinematic OCD (aka, she actually treats her illness seriously and organises her schedule as directed, which is the exact same thing as actual OCD, right?). As she’s casually wandering around the halls of the insanely lavish and obviously expensive hospital, she runs into Will Newman (Cole Sprouse) who also has cystic fibrosis and is on a special medical trial to try and get rid of the bacterial infection in his lungs that is making his condition worse. He is also a total slob, doesn’t follow his regimen at all, basically ignores all medical advice and has somehow managed to survive to the age of 18 even though he never even uses his therapy vest until Stella basically tricks him into doing it. The two of them end up falling in love, despite having basically nothing in common except for an illness, and now must deal with the main issue of them not being permitted within 6 feet of each other otherwise there might be cross-contamination and they could die.
So, before I get into the actual part where I express my full thoughts on this movie, I’m very well aware that the cystic fibrosis community has embraced this film. There’s a really fascinating article about how much this means to them and how they have been so happy to see themselves on screen. One person got 30 friends to buy tickets and sit around her in order to ensure there was a 6-foot barrier just in case someone else who came to the cinema had cystic fibrosis. I’ve linked to it, I suggest reading it, it’s a great read and on an emotional level, I can get how this would appeal. This is a variation of the classic Romeo & Juliet tale where the two lovebirds are kept apart by circumstances beyond their control and their youthful impetuousness causes them to put themselves at great risk in order to be with their one true love and I can get the appeal and if you have this illness I get why this might mean a lot to you, I had the same reaction when I saw Love, Simon so I get that… but there are problems here that bugged me and I have to call those out, it’s why I’m here right now. I’ll understand if you discount my opinion on that basis, but I wanted that to be clear as I can be. I get why others may like this, I do not.
The entire story revolves around a series of ideas that pop up in a lot of media that involve hospital romances. Every one of these hospitals always has a black nurse who tends to the main characters and doesn’t take any of their crap, but still loves them. We’ve got one of those here too and she’s almost interchangeable with about a thousand other nurses that fit that description. We have the standard meeting on a rooftop, which is something I’m fairly sure wouldn’t be possible if you’re a minor with cystic fibrosis in a hospital with a large staff who are in charge of making sure you don’t get even sicker and die. Did I mention this is in winter so it’s snowing, so these kids who have serious issues with breathing step outside into the snow repeatedly where they have a huge chance of catching a cold… uh huh, good plan there. Oh and then there’s the magical gay character who is perfect at everything but I’m going to save him for later because he’s special. Basically, think of something you associate with the show Grey’s Anatomy because it all happens here. Emergency surgery, slipping notes around and, of course, getting someone to take their damn meds.
The Will character is particularly irritating because I genuinely just don’t get how he lives through everything. He takes part in a medical trial where he has to strictly follow a regimen, but no one on staff forces him to do it. He has a severe additional illness called “Burkholderia cepacia complex” which is contagious and could make things worse for everyone else in the ward with CF… but he’s free to roam around, hang out, get way closer than 6 feet to people and is basically just ignored. He doesn’t even use his vest until told to by Stella, I genuinely do not get how he had managed to survive to 18. He’s also just incredibly unlikeable as a character. The actor that plays him is fine, in fact, all of the actual performances are fine, but this character is a giant douchebag with little redeeming factors other than he’s cute. I mean, honestly, I have nothing good to say about the character of Will Newman. I barely have good things to say about Stella, but Will is a write-off.
Stella has a little more to her, in part because Haley Lu Richardson manages to find the little charming quirks to make her character interesting at the beginning of the movie. Her cinematic-variation of OCD is charming, her need for control pushes the plot and I latched on to her optimism that she was going to manage to make it through and then she meets Will and slowly her character sinks down to meet him, culminating in a series of moments that literally made me go “Oh, OK, you both deserve to die” because of the obscenely poor decisions that the two characters made. I did not want to think that, I genuinely didn’t, but the ending of this movie absolutely made me hate them both and Stella’s drop, in particular, was just heartbreaking. Again, nothing wrong with the actress, Haley even plays the scenes I hated with such charm and talent that I can’t wait to see her in more things, but this wasn’t something I was in any way interested in.
Then there’s Poe… So, this is where I’m going to spoil something major that happens. I have no choice, it’s a thing I need to talk about because I’m going to explode if I don’t so if you don’t want spoilers, move onto the next paragraph. I mean, if you got this far I’m hoping this means you won’t be seeing the film, but the warning is here so in a few sentences I’m going to be dropping a spoiler so this is your last chance. Poe is an interesting character, he’s a gay character who is pretty open about his sexuality and his past history of relationships and that’s awesome to see. It’s also weirdly nice seeing a gay character with an illness that isn’t HIV because you would not be shocked at how often that’s the go-to illness for gay characters. The actor plays him well, I want to see more work by him and while the character is the cliché magical gay character who can do basically anything, including edible arrangements and skateboarding, there was a certain kind of charm to him. There was a charm to him right up until the moment that he died because this is a movie that embraces the ‘bury your gays’ trope, which is that fun fascinating trope where a gay character will die on screen in order to advance the story of the straight characters. We’ve hit upon this trope earlier in the year with the film Mary, Queen of Scots and the trope is still just as vile as ever because narratively, Poe does nothing to deserve his fate other than just being gay. Characters who actively avoid treatments and are contemptuous and cruel get to live, but the gay character must die in a moment that pushes the straight lovebirds to their emotional climax. It’s not OK for this trope to continue and considering this is an original script that was sold in 2017, shortly after this trope got serious mainstream attention, there is no real excuse for this.
There are so many other small issues that just break any chance of immersion. I still have no idea where the characters got a pool cue from, do hospitals regularly have pool tables that could just miss a pool cue randomly? The hospital is so empty that it feels otherworldly, even sitcoms set in hospitals have a better understanding of how crowded those places are. The series Let The Blood Run Free had a more packed hospital, and that show had 7 cast members in it so that should tell you how empty this one feels (also, go watch episodes of Let The Blood Run Free, it’s a genuinely funny series). How do patients in a hospital manage to break into a cafeteria and find lobster that they can cook while no one’s around? How does no one put any of these kids under 24-hour watch when they constantly break every rule in the book? Yeah, all of these are things that are trivial but they don’t help this story because it turns it into a borderline trivialisation of the story they’re trying to tell.
If you have cystic fibrosis and you’re wanting to see a love story set in a situation you’re in, this will probably do that and you might love it, but I don’t have that emotional connection to the setting so I’m left with the story being told and it’s not that good. The characters irritate me, the setting infuriates me and I actively dislike most of the things that were happening on screen. The performances are fine and with a fair bit of reworking, I could see this concept being done well but I just don’t see it here and I was in no way a fan of this film. I plan on keeping every copy of this film at least five feet away from me at all times.