Review: Five Feet Apart

Five Feet Apart (2019)
Dir: Justin Baldoni

When I saw the trailer for this film over a year ago I felt confident I got the measure of it quite accurately, so as I sat down to watch it on Netflix this week, I knew exactly what to expect, what I’d jokingly like to call ‘The Fault in Our Catarrh’.

Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) a girl with cystic fibrosis returns to her frequented hospital ward for a ‘tune-up’, meeting another CF patient Will (Cole Sprouse) whose outlook clashes with her own until they find some common ground, though their condition necessitates that they stay physically distanced, even as emotionally they get closer. 

I’m trying to avoid making unfair comparisons with other films and stories but this does fall firmly in the teen-romance-with-serious-illnesses genre, stories that follow a familiar structure and often conclude with a tragic ending. There’s an audience for these films and it’s aimed squarely at them. There have been so many entries into this genre in the past decade or so, and this falls neatly in the middle of the bunch, sadly it didn’t rise above my initial expectations, there aren’t really any surprises nor an emotional gut-punch, though it comes close. I would have been a bit disappointed if I’d paid to see this in the cinema last year. However, now having it streaming at no additional cost on Netflix, and given the extraordinary circumstances were currently living in, the film may benefit greatly from a little added resonance.

There’s an awful lot of exposition, characters explain the condition, the limitations it necessitates, their stories, but much of this is done through watching YouTube. So it’s just getting to know about CF and them, not watching them bond and create an emotional connection by talking about things together, missing the opportunity to serve the dual purpose of helping characters bond at the same time. While it felt to me like there weren’t any important questions left unanswered and the pivotal reasons are neatly laid out for why the leads must stay apart, from all that establishing clarity, it’s abundantly clear from the outset that this story can have no real happy ending.

Instead of just having a level of general sympathy for the characters, I think viewers now can empathise in a way they usually wouldn’t. I know multiple courting couples who are able to only see each other from over 5 feet apart. Even though I’m not in that exact situation, for the past three months, I’ve only had human interaction with loved ones and in fact all of humanity, either on screens or through windows. This is something everyone who’s social distancing can now relate to, it’s a reality that’s rapidly become our new normality. So, rather than watching this film and thinking ‘oh, that must be tough for them’, viewers will now be watching it and thinking, ‘yeah, that’s tough, I know’. Even though they were already clearly explained, the audience is now better able to understand the restrictions and how they are in reality, far more than a two-hour film would have ever otherwise been able to convey to a general audience, and with a deeper level of understanding gained through a largely relatable experience. This is something the writers couldn’t have ever foreseen. Scenes of characters sitting on opposite ends of benches, speaking through panes of glass, or constantly videocalling on phones and tablets and permanently wearing face masks now feel almost prescient. 

On reflection, trying to work out why the film didn’t completely work for me, I have two key points that I can’t overlook. The female lead Stella is played by Haley Lu Richardson who was really likeable in ‘Edge of Seventeen’ and she is likeable here again, though I feel like her character could have done with a little more time for fuller and more subtle development. Her best friend on the ward, Poe, is played by Moisés Arias whose scene-stealing performance in ‘Kings of Summer’ was my favourite part of that film. He’s good here too though suffers from the same issues as the other characters and the film on the whole, badly served by the pacing. The character I think fell shortest of the mark is Cole Sprouse’s romantic lead, Will. While casting Sprouse was clearly a well-calculated choice that obviously hoped to capitalise on his popularity from ‘Riverdale’, the character just comes up short of what’s needed to make this an enduring tale of romance. I’m not sure how much is his performance or the character as written, and I fully accept that it’s very possible this is true to the original script and he may be perfectly conveying the character as was written, but (excluding a few moments) he lacks the key traits that would make him an irresistible romantic lead. He’s not enough of an outsider, nor hopeless enough, or charming, endearing, or romantic. He’s middling on each of those traits, which makes falling desperately, life-threateningly, in love with him critically unconvincing. 

The other point, that no doubt most hampered my enjoyment of the film is the pacing. This could either be attributed to the director not having experience in making feature films, most notably previously directing music videos, or another symptom of the writing, as the screenwriters come from a thriller and horror background, another medium in which a faster pace would be of benefit, but for the purposes of telling this story it’s definitely off. The frequent story beats are all hit in rapid succession, there’s very little time left between key moments and scenes. When going for poignancy it’s often in the pauses, delays, waiting, hoping, yearning, that a really compelling love story or tragic drama can be fully developed. Someone clearly wanted the running time to be kept under 2 hours and to be fair it doesn’t drag, I usually appreciate that. Even with the events depicted taking place over a short hospital stay, there definitely needed to be some breaks and pauses, substantial chances to catch your breath and let the impact of heaviest events fully hit home. Especially in the last third of the film, loads of key things happen, yet we go from one to the next immediately, there’s very little time given to showing the characters dealing with what’s happened, therefore we as an audience don’t have a chance or reason to take them to heart either. There are moments where if the pace was slowed a little more with just a minute of quiet contemplation it would have increased the effect of the events greatly but it’s not given almost any chance for that and so felt oddly less satisfying than it could’ve been.

While it did pretty well at the box office when released in 2019, there wasn’t overwhelming buzz or enduring audience love to help it enter the zeitgeist, but I think it has now got a chance of doing a lot better on streaming in the era of Covid-19, with increased empathy possibly making up for some of the shortcomings. While it’s not exactly what I’d call a ‘film for our times’, without a doubt, it’s the time for this film.

‘Five Feet Apart’ is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and likely in many other places. It’s not the best example of the genre but it tells a concise love story that we can all maybe better understand than the filmmakers ever thought.

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