It’s hard not to feel manipulated when it comes to the art you read, watch or listen to if you concentrate on it hard enough. Either it is playing to an inherent vice we all have or it is specifically designed to make us cry instead of make us reach that point naturally. While it is impossible to imagine certain films weren’t made with a cynical idea that it will play to our base instincts, some manage to avoid the label of emotionally manipulative thanks to some inspired choices or it’s character work. Five Feet Apart does neither but it still proves remarkably watchable and in the end it all comes down to it’s choice of lead.
Telling the story of Cystic Fibrosis sufferer Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) who has found herself in hospital yet again for a routine series of procedures. What sets this time apart from the others is her fellow patients. Accompanied by best friend Poe (Moises Arias), she meets the rebellious and listless Will (Cole Sprouse), a fellow CF sufferer whose inability to follow the rules both intimidates and frustrates her. While he pushes her to throw off the restrictions that limit her life, she pushes him to see that taking risks don’t have to be limited to life and death.
It might be easy to paint Justin Baldoni’s film as the equivalent of The Fault in our Stars 2 or a sequel to A Walk to Remember, at least in the content and genre it firmly plants itself within. However it finds a different way of looking at things through the group of people it gives a spotlight to. The CF community, an oftentimes ignored section of society has been given insight and attention in a film that while detailed in its depiction of the disease doesn’t paint a delicate enough picture. There is no voice to this tale, one with plenty to say while never finding a way to articulate it.
Truth is this might prove important to a select few but most will find themselves scratching their heads at a film that struggles to feel even the slightest bit important. A delicate story is truncated through overly floral musical montages, a hamfisted script that deals with life and death as if they were nonsense terms and exists within a clean, sanitised world. Sure it does take place entirely in a hospital but here the facility they walk the halls of are spotless, shiny happy places where no wrong can happen. It’s hard to connect with characters that don’t exist in a world that looks like you might find it at the end of a rainbow, especially when one of the key themes here is the notion of coming to terms with your own mortality.
The irony here is that Baldoni has directed a film about the varying degrees of taking risks within our own lives, regardless of the ailments we have or don’t have. Five Feet apart takes close to none. All the plot points are mapped out, all the characters are protected in their cases, kept in mint condition. It never once thinks to step outside of itself and say just one thing new. If anything it successfully tells a story about putting yourself out there, making the decisions you want to make for yourself, not for others but it does so thanks almost entirely to Richardson’s performance and not anything written or displayed.
While it might sound like I have nothing but contempt for Five Feet Apart it couldn’t be further from the truth. While it felt like a retread, a step backwards instead of forwards, it keeps you gripped from start to finish and for a film that is devoted to musical montages, it has carefully selected a delightful soundtrack. If anything this is feel good filmmaking that might avoid the brutal truths in favour of optimism and that sense of joy permeates the whole film thanks to some terrific performances that elevate everything that doesn’t quite work. Richardson leads a cast that push the boundaries of what Baldoni wants to say while raising the stakes by making you actually care about them. Sprouse might not have as many shining moments or chances to show off but he plays Will straight and this adds a nice contrast between his naive notion of living life and Stella’s pragmatism.
If anything Baldoni lets his actors do the work and while it might have been smarter to bring this high flying story down to earth a little he does give Richardson and Sprouse room to soar. If anything, he should watch his film back before he makes another one, just to let himself know he needs to take more risks. However for a debut picture, it’s not technically stunning but it’s definitely not lifeless.