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Love is in the air – ‘Five Feet Apart’

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I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a soft touch, emotionally speaking. My buttons can be pushed pretty easily. If a movie wants to make me cry, it will have little problem doing so. Whether or not that emotional manipulation is earned, well … it doesn’t really matter. It will work. However, just because my emotions are impacted doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the strings being pulled.

The new movie “Five Feet Apart” – directed by Justin Baldoni from a screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis – is nothing BUT strings. It is almost cynically manipulative, with a star-crossed love story featuring terminally ill teenagers falling for one another yet being kept apart by forces beyond their control. It is so formulaic, so boilerplate, that it almost feels algorithmically-generated – a product of maudlin mathematics.

Stella (Haley Lu Richardson, “Operation Finale”) is a teenaged girl suffering from cystic fibrosis. The nature of the disease means that she spends much of her time going in and out of hospitals, missing out on time with friends and family. To deal with her institutionalized time, she studies and programs and visits the newborns and makes short videos about her journey and posts them online.

Her latest trip to the hospital finds her once again under the watchful eye of Nurse Barb (Kimberly Herbert Gregory, “Mother’s Milk”); her best friend (and fellow CFer) Poe (Moises Arias, “The Wall of Mexico”) is also in treatment at the same time. It looks to be another typical hospital stay.

Until she meets Will (Cole Sprouse, TV’s “Riverdale”).

Will is much more of a brooder than Stella, a young man who has contracted a particular bacterial infection that makes him ineligible for lung transplants; he’s at the hospital to take part in an experimental drug trial in an effort to help alleviate some of his symptoms.

The nature of cystic fibrosis means that bacterial infections passed between patients are particularly damaging, so CFers minimize risk through wearing masks and maintaining a set distance between them, coming no closer than six feet.

As you might have already guessed, this certainly doesn’t prevent Stella and Will from quickly tumbling into a shared infatuation that develops rapidly into something more. Something so strong that they find themselves willing to risk everything, all for the sake of just one more foot of proximity.

They wander around the hospital, sometimes together and sometimes apart, but always wrapped up in one another’s headspace. For Stella, she has to decide how much she is willing to lose to be with Will, whose bacteria could lead to her losing a chance at new lungs if she should become infected.

Cue the waterworks.

While I have no problem calling “Five Feet Apart” a bad movie, there’s no denying that it accomplishes its goals. It wants nothing more than to pluck at the heartstrings of teenagers – and so it does. It’s rare to find a movie so fully and unapologetically content to be what it is; even if what it is isn’t very good, there’s still something to be admired about that.

It’s worth noting that the screening I attended was rife with the periodic sniffles and sobs of teenaged girls. “Five Feet Apart” knows precisely who its true audience is and homes in on it with a sharp, almost cynical precision. The beats are familiar and formulaic, but the target viewers could not care less.

Make no mistake – there are a lot of issues with how this film portrays cystic fibrosis and its treatment. There’s the gross oversimplification of interpersonal interactions between sufferers, for instance. And a palatial, heavily-staffed hospital featuring a level of care that makes one wonder who is footing the bill. The portrayal of the disease’s symptoms and consequences therein are also glossed over and/or largely ignored.

Honestly, the performances are the only thing keeping this thing afloat. Richardson is a star in the making, a talented young actress who somehow manages to make the mawkish meanderings of this script engaging. Sprouse – who will always be Zack or Cody to me – is also quite good, though he will always be tough to buy as a bad boy. The two of them together have an undeniable chemistry that is strong enough to make the outlandishness of their relationship somehow palatable. The supporting cast isn’t quite as good; Arias and Gregory are OK, but not much more, while the respective parents are essentially non-entities (although, you know, shout out to Claire Forlani).

Still, it’s the two at the center that make this movie work (insomuch as it does actually work). Despite the paint-by-numbers narrative and the clumsy clichés and the constant hammering home of trope after trope, Richardson and Sprouse hold it all together. None of this is to imply that it’s any good, but it’s tough to ignore its effectiveness, both on those distinctly aware of its tricks and those willfully ignoring them.

“Five Feet Apart” is what you get when you clone a John Green book, only to immediately clone the clone; it’s a faded photocopy of teenage terminality.

[1.5 out of 5]

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