Tangney: ‘Five Feet Apart’ so baldly manipulative in the end
“Five Feet Apart” has set itself a near impossible task: Be a teen romance involving an incurable and often fatal disease that isn’t unbearably cloying.
Any earnest teenagers-in-love storyline is already fraught with enormous cliches, but adding the emotional baggage of cystic fibrosis to the romantic comedy framework threatens to topple the entire enterprise.
If not for its two charismatic young stars, Haley Lu Richardson (“Columbus”) and Cole Sprouse (“Riverdale”), this movie would be little more than an exercise in audience eye-rolls and cringes.
Richardson plays Stella, a 17-year-old cystic fibrosis patient recently re-admitted to the hospital for an indefinite stay.
Stella: Hello world. My lung function is down to 35 percent now. People with cystic fibrosis aren’t supposed to get within six feet, because we could end up catching each other’s bacteria.
Nothing is going to save our lives, so we’re breathing borrowed air.
Stella: No, I refuse to believe that.
This six-feet-apart rule for CF patients is the bane of their existence, especially for Stella and Will (Sprouse), who are hospitalized just down the hall from each other. Sticking close to the rules of rom-coms, they start off as rhetorical enemies.
Stella: Let me guess. You’re the kind of guy that ignores the rules because it makes you feel in control. Am I right?
Will: You’re not wrong.
Stella: Do you think it’s cute?
Will: Do YOU think it’s cute?
But eventually, they fall hard for each other. Also true to format, Stella gets a platonic best friend with CF who can crack wise with her about her new love.
Friend: Don’t tell me the one time you’re interested in some guy that he’s also got CF.
Stella: I just helped him set up his med cart.
Friend: I know you, Stella. Organizing a med cart is like foreplay.
Stella, quite unnecessarily, gets yet another back-story involving a sister that only adds to her grief quotient (because apparently having a fatal disease isn’t hard enough).
To its credit, the film doesn’t ignore the physical hardships of cystic fibrosis. But it’s the irrepressible romance that gets most of the attention. As impossibly sad as their situation in life is, their love can’t be denied either.
And I can appreciate Stella’s gumption when she comes up with her own personal compromise regarding the 6-foot rule.
Stella: After all that CF has stolen from me, I don’t mind stealing something back — 304 millimeters, 12 inches, 1 foot.
Hence, the film’s title: “Five Feet Apart.”
Now if the movie had left it right there, I could even recommend “Five Feet Apart,” as a somewhat predictable but generally likable rom-com that brings some attention to a devastating genetic disorder.
Unfortunately, the film’s last half-hour or so gets so ridiculously melodramatic that whatever good will the movie has earned at that point dissipates quickly. The movie is so baldly manipulative in the end that, sure, you may be tearing up, but you certainly don’t feel good about it. Cue the eye rolls.