Decades ago, the stars of Five Feet Apart would be 25 or 30, and the movie would be categorized as a weepie. But in a post-Fault in Our Stars world, it’s easy to flag Five Feet Apart as a YA romance, even if its female lead, Haley Lu Richardson, is 24, and its male lead, Cole Sprouse, is a wizened 26. The actors revert to their characters’ approximate ages in Columbus and Riverdale, respectively, to play teenagers who should be getting ready to graduate high school—if not for their ongoing battle with cystic fibrosis, which repeatedly lands them in the hospital for long-term treatments.
Stella (Richardson) is the organized type, obvious from her instructional YouTube videos, self-administered medication, and neatly kept hospital room—though the movie insists on having her explain that she has “control issues” anyway. Will (Sprouse), who has a more severe bacterial strain that eliminates him from the possibility of a lung transplant (something that can buy cystic fibrosis patients an extra five years or so), is more fatalistic and rebellious, an artist who regards Stella’s diligence with skepticism. Will’s condition also means that any physical proximity to Stella is a major risk for her; they’re advised to stay at least six feet apart at all times (why Five Feet Apart, then? Don’t worry, there’s eventually an explanation).
When Stella and Will meet—at the hospital, naturally; it’s a little odd that they haven’t met before—they’re immediately at odds, then eventually love each other. The movie can’t quite make either of these plot turns convincing, despite the best efforts of Richardson and Sprouse (especially Richardson; Sprouse is leaning heavily on his Riverdale persona, which involves saying extremely obvious things with the smug confidence of a visionary iconoclast). Even though they’re a study in opposites-attract contrasts, Stella and Will hit all the major romantic relationship beats mostly because, well, Five Feet Apart requires them to. Will’s spontaneity, Stella’s sense of humor, and both characters’ rapport with Stella’s best friend, fellow CF patient Poe (Moises Arias) all feel utterly canned. Like Sprouse, director Justin Baldoni is a regular on The CW (he’s an actor on Jane on the Virgin), and he often keeps the rhythm of a middling teen show, affecting a kind of faux-self-awareness.
There are better, more affecting moments. There’s something kind of rueful and bittersweet about the way Stella and Will are forced to conduct their relationship—first as reluctant sorta-allies, then (very briefly) as friends, then (to no one’s surprise) romantic partners—in a largely mediated context. They’re hospital neighbors, but it’s more expedient for them to text, IM, and video-chat with each other—which in some ways makes them maybe not so different than teenagers living a chunk of their lives on Instagram. There’s at least one well-flowing montage of their virtual courtship—though as with many sequences, the movie drowns it out with insistent soundtrack cues.
That maudlin, cranked-up soundtrack also points to the ways that Five Feet Apart goes beyond a mere CW weepie. Though both the emotional labor and the physical logistics of two kids with cystic fibrosis make the movie more compelling than your average Nicholas Sparks picture, the movie goes overboard in its final half-hour, working the melodrama into a rich lather, then wringing cheap suspense out of its characters’ health. This is supposed to portray the fragility of their lives and the weight of their decisions, but it comes across as, frankly, kind of exploitative. (Imagine a teen romance where a cancer patient weakened from treatment must traverse a high wire for overelaborate yet kind of pointless reasons; that’s what the climax of Five Feet Apart is like.) Still, for some readers and viewers, the melodrama is the point. Fans of the book might like to know: How does the movie’s ending differ from the original text?
(This is SEMI-SPOILER territory here; I won’t reveal the specifics of either ending, but if you want to go in completely clean, you should turn back now.)
The answer is that the movie’s ending is pretty much the same as the book’s, for good reason: The movie is not really an adaptation of the book. The book is an adaptation of the screenplay for Five Feet Apart, which writers Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry sold in 2017. Author Rachel Lippincott adapted the script to a book that was published in 2018, and probably would have been in progress around when the movie was in production. Essentially, the book exists to promote the film, which probably isn’t a bad way to drum up some interest in a mid-to-low budget studio release in a theatrical landscape dominated by big-ticket franchises.
The finished film does depart from the book by eliminating what amounts to a narrative epilogue involving a reunion between some of the characters. The movie ends earlier, but its ending is included in the book version. It’s one of the film’s instances of restraint.