Movie review: Cystic fibrosis patients share a potentially fatal attraction in 'Five Feet Apart'

 
 
Updated 3/15/2019 11:18 AM
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  • Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse), both cystic fibrosis patients, share a moment of emotional honesty in "Five Feet Apart."

    Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse), both cystic fibrosis patients, share a moment of emotional honesty in "Five Feet Apart." Courtesy of CBS Films

  • Cystic fibrosis patient Poe (Moises Arias) uses humor to get through his treatments in "Five Feet Apart."

    Cystic fibrosis patient Poe (Moises Arias) uses humor to get through his treatments in "Five Feet Apart." Courtesy of CBS Films

"Five Feet Apart" -- ★ ★

In the dying teen drama "Five Feet Apart," a charismatic adolescent couple suffering from cystic fibrosis not only must avoid personal contact, but stay a safe distance from anything resembling stark reality or fresh emotional insight.

"Five Feet Apart" -- based on the 2018 novel by Rachael Lippincott, Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis -- lacks the raw snap and bite of similar dramas such as "The Fault In Our Stars," and especially "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl," a cinematically daring story with splashy visuals recalling earlier works of the Coens.

Here, Justin Baldoni directs a high-budget version of what used to be called a made-for-TV "Disease of the Week" movie with musical mini-montages (and vaguely optimistic pop songs) doing the heavy dramatic lifting.

Seventeen-year-old Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson) loves rainbows, talking on social media and organizing the pill bottles in her room at the Saint Grace Hospital. (She admits to being slightly OCD.)

She has concerned parents, but mostly a perpetually perky nurse named Barb (a force of nature named Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to care for her as she struggles to keep her lungs clear of fatal fluids.

She befriends a quirky, funny looking fellow CF patient named Poe (Moises Arias), who amuses her greatly. He likes her, but as an openly gay teen, he seems an unlikely candidate for her obligatory romantic interest.

That job falls to the new mysterious and brooding CF patient Will Newman ("Riverdale" heartthrob Cole Sprouse), a bad boy rebel who lets his friends have sex in his hospital room.

He repulses Stella. At first.

As the two bond and their affections grow, the question dangles over their relationship like a dark cloud: Will they stay away from each other's potentially fatal bacteria?

Or will they throw caution to the wind for -- as Julia Roberts described it in "Steel Magnolias" -- 30 minutes of wonderful rather than a lifetime of nothing special?

The most telling scene in "Five Feet Apart" takes place at the hospital swimming pool late one night when Stella and Will, alone, share their true feelings for each other.

In a tender moment of complete honesty, the two disrobe so each can see the other's scars and infections caused by their treatments.

It should have been a galvanizing scene. Except that the constraints of a PG-13 rating required them to keep their underwear intact, rendering the pivotal, emotionally naked scene unrealistically chaste. But marketable.

Then, to pump up a sagging third act, Stella and Will walk on literal thin ice as they make snow angels on a frozen pond.

What follows is an injection of cheesy crisis to wake up viewers who might be napping at this point in an increasingly overlong story.

Nonetheless, the amiable PG-13 chemistry between Richardson and Sprouse covers a lot of dramatic potholes in "Five Feet Apart," even a "surprise" death that will hardly shock savvy filmgoers.

"I've been living for my treatment instead of doing my treatment so I can live," Stella says. "I want to live!"

Not as snappy as Julia Roberts' speech. But it will do.

• • •

Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hebert Gregory

Directed by: Justin Baldoni

Other: A CBS Films release. Rated PG-13 for language, suggestive material. 120 minutes

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