Review: 'Five Feet Apart' plays like a medical retelling of 'Romeo and Juliet'

Hayley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in FIVE FEET APART to be released by CBS FILMS and LIONSGATE.

For certainly not the first and likely not the last time, this year’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” a film by the name of “Five Feet Apart,” is told nearly entirely by its trailer. Sick girl meets sick boy. Their disease keeps their love from blossoming into something more intimate, shall we say.

Did I mention they’re sick? Because that is the focal point here, and also perhaps the most redeeming quality of this most recent addition to the young adult “doomed romance” catalog of films.

Seventeen-year-old Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that often confines her to long hospital stays, mountains of daily pills, and a strict regimen to extract the extra mucus from her lungs. She’s tenacious and precise in the system she keeps to stay alive while she awaits a lung transplant, and she fills her time as a blogger-slash-advocate for CF awareness.

Will (Cole Sprouse) is new to her hospital wing and the quintessential, leather-jacket-wearing bad boy, like if James Dean carried around an oxygen tank and brooded under fluorescent light. Will isn’t eligible for a transplant due to a wickedly contagious bacteria he contracted. He’s there as part of an experimental drug trial.

The rest goes exactly as you would expect it to. They form a flirty friendship; Stella wants to tame Will who is rebelling against his treatment plan. They fall in love over FaceTime and with funny cartoons slipped under doors and run amuck in the hospital hallways, playing scavenger hunts and taking a scandalous dip in the pool.

The rest is literally history. It’s a medical retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”, two star-crossed lovers defying the rules placed upon them. In this case, it’s the “six foot rule” set by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation which states that two people with CF must stay at least six feet apart to avoid catching the other’s potentially fatal bacteria.

Unlike its 2014 predecessor, “Five Feet Apart” doesn’t ever grant our protagonists the guise of improving health. The technicalities and intricacies of cystic fibrosis are depicted in an almost oppressive manner. Details that would otherwise be glossed over in a YA film are expanded upon in great length. This is a product of the rigorous research the actors and filmmakers underwent, modeling the story after real-life CF patients, particularly blogger Claire Wineland to whom the film is dedicated and who passed in 2018.

In this sense, it’s an enlightening look at the disease suffered by 70,000 people worldwide. Enlightening but also, you guessed it, really, really depressing. CF isn’t just a disease. It’s a death sentence, a matter of not if, but when, for most sufferers even with a transplant. You won't escape this one with dry eyes, and though representation and awareness is crucial, real-life tragedies are often the most potent kind.

Not based on a young adult book (though it has been novelized), the film’s target demographic is quite obvious. The film is hardly novel, and the predictability of its plot and sweet, but adolescent love story may infect the older audience members with chronic eye roll syndrome. But teens across the country will fall hard for “Riverdale” heartthrob Sprouse and adorably likeable Richardson, both of whom carry the film and make it a passable, if not interesting, watch, even for those of us over the age of sixteen.

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