Five Feet Apart
Cole Sprouse, Haley Lu Richardson
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Its heart is in the right place, but its brain runs from it…
Even for a medium as inherently manipulative as cinema, the recent young adult takeover of terminal romance (AKA sick-lit) pushes that boundary more than most. While it has given audiences some solid features like The Fault In Our Stars – the film that kickstarted the trend in earnest – that is still in spite of storytelling that is almost begging the audience to start tearing up. The latest in this trend, Five Feet Apart, isn’t annoying because it is manipulative. It’s annoying because it feels stuck between trying to wring honest engagement out of the proceedings, and just dovetailing the typical clichés of the genre.
For what works about this production, one needn’t look further than the main couple. While Cole Sprouse as the reclusive bad boy love interest is a little too on-the-nose as far as teenaged pandering is concerned, Haley Lu Richardson more than picks up the slack with a performance that demands empathy and entirely warrants it. Bonus points for having a main character with OCD and not completely adhering to wizened stereotyping about the condition, something followed with the story’s approach to the focal-point condition: Cystic fibrosis.
While most films in this genre are fixated with tying themselves to literary classics to give themselves a sense of importance, this film is more interested in the hard facts about the condition itself. And as a result, when it’s not highlighting the endearing cuteness of the main couple, it’s giving facts about CF, living with it and the paradoxical situation it puts people in. The one group of people that best understand what they’re going through (other people with CF) are the ones that they absolutely need to keep their distance from.
It emphasises the need for tactile contact, even in the face of worsening health, and by film’s end, it turns that need into something universal that goes beyond the diagnosis. This ends up declaring what defines sick-lit as a sub-genre: highlighting the romantic trials of the sick to give sentimental advice to the healthy. Manipulative as hell, but for the most part, it works.
However, for every moment that feels sincere, there’s another that adheres to the sick-lit doctrine. The near-endless montages set to sterilised dream-pop, the fear of character death as an impetus to feel something, not to mention the schmaltzpocalypse that is the entire third act, where any intention of emotional integrity goes right out the window; it’s still trying to push through a fog of familiarity to make any of it stick.
What results from all this is a film that highlights some of the best and some of the worst that the sub-genre has to offer. Its heart is in the right place, but its brain runs from it by the time we reach the third act. It’s still worth checking out, even if only to see Haley Lu Richardson stake her claim as an actress to keep an eye on, but it’d be easier to recommend if there was more consistency here.