We’ve been here before: like a rollercoaster you loved as a kid but realise as an adult that you don’t find nearly as fun or exciting than those first few go-arounds, Five Feet Apart is the film equivalent, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth buying the ticket for another run, even if it’s not quite a good. As the film equivalent, it follows in the similar footsteps of 2014’s hugely successful The Fault in Our Stars but while that venture may have been the level that any subsequent films would have to measure up to, it did have one ingredient missing: Haley Lu Richardson, who quite frankly, is one of this century’s best young actresses working today. Maybe the best.
For Five Feet Apart, Richardson plays Stella, a teenager who has suffered with cystic fibrosis her whole life, wrestling with the day-to-day demands of a condition that sees her hospital-bound for the majority of her time. But Stella is strong-willed and determined to make the most of her life, regardless of how long she has left or the amount of work she has to do to keep going – in fact, her overpowering OCD works quite beneficially in an odd way in that it helps her mind stay focused on her goals and on her treatments. Her routines are skewed, however, when she meets Cole Sprouse’s Will, who while his condition is much more severe than hers, his loose approach and embracing of life fires something new in Stella and the two become close.
If that all sounds very “Nicholas Sparks”, truth is that is that is exactly what it is: a mushy, saccharine, sometimes skin-crawlingly cloying story that is about as real as the possibility of Thanos landing on Earth for real and shaking his “big daddy” behind. But many enjoy such distractions and, for better or worse, such stories sell and we can safely say that Five Feet Apart fits the bill, but it has its secret weapon to elevate it just enough to get a pass and that’s Richardson.
If you haven’t seen The Edge of Seventeen, Support the Girls (which is due for UK release later this year) and Columbus – easily one of the best films of 2017/8, depending on when it was released near you – then you need to rectify that right now, and not just for Richardson’s superb performances in them. Here, she takes another step towards superstardom with a raw, honest and vibrant portrayal that is as touching as it is funny, dominating every frame she is in with a grace and warmth that is impossible to ignore. She illuminates throughout, just as she did in those aforementioned films, and adds another feather to her cap that will surely see her become an award-winner in the years to come – she is simply stunning.
What seems determined to undermine her performance, however, is the ludicrousness of the screenplay that takes a sudden about turn into soap opera territory when it had started out so brightly. It’s directed competently enough by feature debutant Justin Baldoni, but the sins of the second half of the film just overpower everything and just as you’re starting to feel real affection for everyone involved, the carpet gets pulled from under you and you’re left with such deflation, despite its touching final few moments.
Scott J.Davis | [rating=2]
Drama, Romance | USA, 2019 | 12A | 22nd March 2019 (UK) | Vertigo Releasing | Dir. Justin Baldoni | Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias