Five Feet Apart review: Although riddled with clichés, Haley Lu Richardson grounds this teen romance

Director: Justin Baldoni. Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani, Parminder Nagra. Cert: 12A, 116 mins

You could say the terminally ill teen romance genre makes a mockery of its subjects. It’s a time in our lives when our emotions are so unwieldy that every decision feels like life or death. So why not throw a deadly disease into all those adolescent dramas? Hollywood has cashed in on all our tears and snotty tissues – from A Walk to Remember to The Fault in Our Stars – and we’ve eagerly lapped up every emotional manipulation.

Yet, the latest in the genre, Five Feet Apart, somehow doesn’t feel quite as shameless as its predecessors. The premise is typically overwrought: two teens, Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse), fall in love, but can never touch. They both have cystic fibrosis – a genetic disorder that causes a thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive system. It requires constant treatment.

In hospital, the two are unable to come within six feet of each other without risking cross-infection (the title spoils the film’s own plot, since we know one foot of that will eventually be chopped off). The results are potentially deadly.

The film is riddled with clichés. Some are more tiresome than others: Poe (Moisés Arias), another CF patient at the hospital, neatly fills the role of the minority member of the LGBT+ community who exists to support the straight white cis heroine on her journey, forfeiting all hope of his own happy ending. There is an inordinate amount of yearning – they stare out of windows, they stare across rooftops – and the film hobbles towards a third act tragedy that’s so unnecessarily left-field, it might as well have been plucked at random from the hat of “bad things that can happen to people”.

Yet, Five Feet Apart doesn’t deserve to be simply dismissed. There’s a sincerity here that undoes many of its excesses, thanks largely to the grounded chemistry of its leads. Under the direction of Justin Baldoni, star of TV’s Jane the Virgin, both Richardson and Sprouse are committed to selling the believability of these two teens actually enjoying each other’s company, rather than just being people we’ve assumed are in love because they keep making extended eye contact.

Sprouse may have been cast in the hopes he’d duplicate his performance as broody outsider Jughead Jones on CW’s Riverdale, but Will’s cynicism comes from a rawer place. Although medical advancements have helped people with cystic fibrosis manage the disease and live longer, there’s no guarantee the treatments always work. Will feels this looming inevitability more than the other patients, and more than the professionally cheerful doctors and nurses around him. That’s what makes him an outsider. Sprouse also finds a nice medium: Will is, at the end of the day, the romantic fantasy whose primary job is to deliver long speeches about how beautiful our heroine is, scars and all. But the actor doesn’t let that overwhelm the character. He’s there to tell Will’s story, letting that ocean wave of a haircut do the rest of the work.

Stella, meanwhile, only fits the part of the good girl because she’s acting out of a sense of guilt. What makes her uptight is her own determination to survive, to the point that she’s developed OCD tendencies when it comes to her regimen. The pair first start to bond after she insists they do their treatments together, since her compulsions won’t let her tolerate Will’s own carelessness. Richardson is fantastic here. She understands that Stella’s entire mentality is built around the idea of denying what seems inevitable. She lets her sense of positivity seem genuine in one moment, and forced in the next. Perhaps it’s more nuanced than the film’s screenplay, written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, ever really intended, but you believe it.

The film also isn’t dealing with the vague, mystery illness the romance genre so commonly relies on, whose only symptoms are a pale complexion and occasional cough. We’re witnessing a daily reality: the cycle of trays filled with medicine, vibrating jackets to bring up the phlegm, and carefully monitored diets. It’s not a perfect representation, by far, and inevitably there’s the question of the messages this film sends out in romanticising such a potentially deadly risk. But, for a genre so easily accused of cold manipulation, Five Feet Apart feels different. These feel like real people, not just props for another cry fest.