Young love and terminal illness make a strong combination, like they usually do, this time in “Five Feet Apart,” which rises and falls on the considerable charm of its romantic leads.
In a hospital in an unnamed wintry city (the movie was filmed in New Orleans), Stella Grant (played by Haley Lu Richardson) is a 16-year-old getting treated for cystic fibrosis. For those not up on their genetic diseases, and as the movie explains, cystic fibrosis causes the sufferer’s lungs to fill with mucus. There is no cure, only treatment — and the hope of a possible lung transplant, which may prolong the patient’s life for five years or so. (People touched by CF may dispute the particulars; this is the information the movie provides.)
One hard-and-fast rule of CF is that people who have it have to stay at least six feet away from each other at all times. This is to prevent cross-infection of bacteria, which can travel six feet in a sneeze or a cough.
Soon Stella meets another CF patient, Will Tanner (played by Cole Sprouse, currently playing Jughead on The CW’s “RIverdale”). Will’s jaded attitude about CF and his pill regimen rankles the optimistic Stella, so at first it seems they’ll never have to worry about getting close enough to worry about the six-foot rule. As things progress, her positivity wears down his cynicism. Besides, Will is an artist with a sketchbook, and as somebody who doesn’t get out much, Stella’s probably seen “Titanic” a zillion times, right? (This is not information provided by the movie; I’m going rogue.)
Director Justin Baldoni, who plays Rafael on The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and is making his feature directing debut, has studied his sappy romantic melodramas — especially the ones like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Pacific Sun” that center on an incurable disease. Baldoni relies heavily on the worried looks of the hospital staff (particularly Kimberley Hebert Gregory as Stella’s devoted nurse), an unending string of sappy singer-songwriter soundtrack cuts, and the charisma of the stars.
This third item, the stars’ magnetic appeal, turns out to be the best thing about “Five Feet Apart.” Sprouse is perfect as the brooding bad boy; if there’s a “Twilight” reboot in the next five years, he’s your Edward. But it’s Richardson, with whom critics fell in love as the architecturally savvy teen in the indie darling “Columbus,” who really shines as Stella, her smile and sass and vulnerability make this often manipulative melodrama feel like a breath of fresh air.
‘Five Feet Apart’
Opens Friday, March 15, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and suggestive material. Running time: 116 minutes.