Can I still say I liked it, even if it didn't make me cry?
Because, while my eyes did moisten more than a few times, this teen illness romantic drama didn't ever get the waterworks going full-blast. Instead, I found myself smiling and feeling an unexpected amount of respect for the way this little story was told. Less nagging and more gently persistent.
|Adapted by the book's authors, and directed by Justin Baldoni.
Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is living with cystic fibrosis. The idea appears to be to survive as long as possible. During a hospital stay, she notices another CF patient who doesn't take his regimen quite as seriously as she does. That is to say, he doesn't care at all, while she is legitimately obsessive-compulsive over it. Her OCD compels her to confront the new guy, who agrees to follow her example on the condition that she let him draw her. Thus, a friendship is born. But a dangerous one; new guy Will (Cole Sprouse) has a particular kind of bacteria in his lungs that exempts him from getting a lung transplant -- something that Stella is hoping for, and something she would lose if she caught his germs. Six feet apart at all times is the rule for CF patients. At that distance, can a romance really work?
Actually, yes. Yes, it can. All that's really required to make an effective love story is two characters that audiences can get behind; and that is this flick's shining achievement. Both in casting and characterization, it hits an appealing balance of tried-and-true familiarity with a fresh, naturalistic twist. Haley Lu Richardson is so adorable and charismatic that I can't believe it's taken her this long to land a lead romantic role. Stella's OCD tendencies that makes her micromanage others and spiral into extreme actions rings true, and it only makes her more likable too, as we watch her grasp for control. She also fulfills the archetype of YA lead girl, being naturally cute in a girl-next-door way, and spunky as all get out.
|Now I want to see Edge of Seventeen again just to fully appreciate her in the role of the best friend.
Then Cole Sprouse does a perfect amalgamation of popular modern and classic archetypes. Will comes across as the edgy yet carefree charmer with a secret heart of gold, but he also completely pulls off the classical romantic hero atheistic of tall-dark-handsome-and-looks-great-in-a-black-trench-coat. This is complemented by the traditional hero arc he goes through, and it's strange how well the mixture works. Like a Mr. Darcy in sweatpants. And Lizzy has OCD! It's perfect. Watching those two interact was great; since they can't touch (and skip straight to making out and cuddling) they had to have actual conversations instead, and the relationship that developed between them feels actually, truly, developed.
Moises Arias as Stella's best friend Poe, who also has CF, and Kimberly Herbert Gregory as Nurse Barb are basically the only supporting cast worth mentioning, as they play into plot and themes and have memorable characters. Mostly though, it's just Stella and Will. Even their parents are often absent. In fact, their independence and the age of the actors led me to believe for about half the movie that the characters were 20-somethings too, and it didn't affect the story at all. They could've left ages out and saved me rolling my eyes over a declaration that "Tomorrow's my eighteenth birthday!" Sure it is, buddy. I mention this because this story sells itself as a YA romance, and sells itself short. It's really is a cut above while wearing the YA uniform.
|He's come a long way from the Suite Life, I guess.
This brings me to the plot, which is decidedly the most complicated aspect, especially with avoiding spoilers. While watching it, it seemed to be all over the place in what it was saying -- but then it landed so hard, on such a strong conclusion, that in retrospect it feels more like it was searching for what was right (much like Stella does) instead of outright floundering. If that's the case, I can't fault it for taking the journey. I'd like to see it again just to see how my perspective changes. And its theme of love is possibly the best I've seen in a YA film; it knows the difference between romance and love, and ultimately and admirably concludes that love is the more valuable of the two.
Ironically, that decision was also the point at which the romance levels skyrocketed. It's been a while since I've seen a YA romance that really goes for a classically romantic flavor instead of putting a woke or cynical twist on it that lessens the effect. The fact that they can't touch is irrelevant to the building relationship, and then is absolutely vital to reach the high drama level it gets to so naturally. Nothing felt contrived to me. The worst I could say is that there are gaps of logic on occasion; the kind that I'd expect make sense if you read the book. And, I find myself saying this a lot these days, but if you need to have your expectations subverted, go somewhere else. This movie makes good use of romantic tropes.
|It did surprise me a few times, just in a more natural, less "gotcha" way.
If you like romantic tropes and like to see effort put into making them work, Five Feet Apart is the place to be. Instead of ripping off The Fault in Our Stars, it's like it was inspired by it, and older works too -- the conversational romance of period dramas and the danger of Romeo and Juliet -- as a starting point to mix, match and create a personal love story. The film boasts an even pace, a mostly concise adapted plot, plenty of cute humor for balance, and two very attractive young people falling in love, growing, and learning, all while facing death. Heightened tragic romance at its modern-day finest. Its lungs may not work at full capacity, but its heart sure does.