Familiarise yourself with Haley Lu Richardson, a memorable face in films like Split and The Edge Of Seventeen, and now the star and saving grace of Five Feet Apart, a mawkish if well-meaning teen romance directed by Jane The Virgin lothario Justin Baldoni.
Based on a YA novel by Rachael Lippincott, the film follows Stella (Richardson), a Pollyanna type who spends her ward-bound days vlogging and making copious lists to maintain some control over her disease. Everything goes out the window with the arrival of Will (Sprouse), a fellow teen whose brooding soul and black combat boots are enough to make Stella abandon all previous rules bar one imperative one: remain five feet apart at all times or risk infection. As the romantic stakes are raised and a personal tragedy befalls Stella, the five-foot limit becomes increasingly cavernous, calling to question whether the couple can survive the limits of their illness and their relationship alike.
Sprouse — a fan favourite in Riverdale — does exactly what’s required of a floppy-haired rule-breaker, but this is ultimately Richardson’s film, who brings a gutsy, snot-and-all performance to an otherwise by-the-book love story. A documentarian behind the camera, Baldoni makes a conscious effort to explain the illnesses shown on screen, using Stella’s vlogging as a neat way to raise awareness about cystic fibrosis without sounding preachy.
For all its good intentions, however, Five Feet Apart drowns in the syrupy tropes of forbidden romance. Every moment of genuine tenderness — a particular swimming pool scene features quivering aplenty — is squashed by a running-through-the-airport build-up or one acoustic cover too many. Boasting two actors capable of bringing the film a head above The Fault In Our Stars and its surrounding ilk, it’s disappointing to see a film about such a challenging subject playing it safe. The alternative might be harder to watch, but would make for a far braver film more worthy of its star couple.