I went into the advance screening of Cole Sprouse’s new film Five Feet Apart knowing that I would cry…and guess what?
Tragic teen romances have been all the rage since the time of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But just imagine that the star-crossed lovers had terminal diagnoses instead of feuding parents. From A Walk to Remember to The Fault in Our Stars, the Sick Teen Movie has become a genre in and of itself. The studios releasing said dramas have one goal: Bring girls to the theater and make them sob for about an hour and a half. Five Feet Apart, starring Cole and Hayley Lu Richardson as two teens with cystic fibrosis, is just the latest.
Knowing all of this going in makes the viewing experience a cynical one right off the bat. I know the couple is going to fall deeply in love due to their unique shared experience, just like I know there’s no way they can truly be together. Likely, one will die and I will cry. I’ve seen this before. But dreamboat director Justin Baldoni didn’t let that stop him from using every trick in the book to get audiences invested.
Stella (Haley Lu) is a type A control freak reluctant to fall for bad boy Will (Cole), a secret cinnamon roll who doesn’t want to take his medicine out of fear he’ll have to admit his own reality. But fall for him she does, because as every Riverdale fan in the theater and Lili Reinhart knows, it’s impossible to resist Cole’s lopsided smirk and sarcastic banter. I rolled my eyes more than once at their sappy, melodramatic one-liners, but I could feel myself falling a little.
Then you’ve got the well-placed twists that serve to up the stakes, most of which I won’t reveal here because spoilers are no fun, but the big difference between FFA and films that came before it is how cystic fibrosis is woven into the story. These are not shockingly well-groomed people we’ve been told have cancer and then pretty much live normally until symptoms hit. These are kids with a chronic illness that presents itself regularly and, at the point of this film, requires an extended stay at a hospital for trials and treatment. There are high-frequency oscillation vests to help Stella and Will cough up mucus buildup in their lungs. There’s sweat and infection and too-thin bodies, and Haley Lu and Cole play their roles believably and with empathy.
But ultimately, there’s the fact that people with cystic fibrosis aren’t supposed to come in contact with one another because they’re at heightened risk of catching each other’s bacteria. It’s not just Stella and Will who can’t be together—Stella can’t even hug her best friend, Poe (Moises Arias). Most of their hangouts are held over Skype and FaceTime rather than in person. The Montagues and Capulets have nothing on CF. But just as Romeo and Juliet before them, Will and Stella are not going to fall in line. They decide to take back one foot from the hospital’s “six feet apart at all times” rule, thanks to a five-feet pool cue. “Kids these days,” say parents in every generation, probably.
It didn’t matter that I knew what Justin was trying to do to me. I reluctantly fell in love with Stella and Will’s love. I secretly cheered them on when they ran from a nurse who was honestly just trying to keep them both alive. My heart rate skyrocketed when Stella fell through the ice of that frozen-over lake, a wild plot point that had no business being in this movie. And yes, I belligerently cried ugly tears when someone who deserved better, I won’t say who, died “unexpectedly.” Ultimately, Five Feet Apart was peak emotional manipulation…but, like, it worked.