Five Feet Apart is Not Just Another “Cancer Love Story”

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Released on March 15, Five Feet Apart tells the story of two cystic fibrosis patients who fall in love. The teenagers’ illnesses require that they remain five feet apart from each other at all times, hence the title of the movie and book adaptation. At first glance, the film might seem like just another “sick kids fall in love” story à la The Fault in Our Stars or Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember. While it’s undeniable that the storyline isn’t the first of its kind, Five Feet Apart is still a unique film worth watching.

Director Justin Baldoni – perhaps most famous for his role in the CW series Jane the Virgin – has created a film that is a great blend of suspense, romance, comedy, and drama. Many viewers will head into the theaters bracing themselves for a tragic onscreen death, but the plot successfully keeps viewers on their toes when it comes to the tear-jerking scenes. There were many occasions when I held my breath, bracing myself for something to happen, but things did not unfold the way I expected.

The cast members’ chemistry and performances also elevated the film and were a pleasant surprise. Cole Sprouse, who plays Will, is well known for being on the Disney Channel and starring in the CW series Riverdale, but this marked his first leading role in a feature film in two decades. I’ll admit that I was wary about his ability to deliver an emotional punch, but Sprouse gave a solid performance, particularly in the film’s last few scenes. He was joined by another Disney Channel alum, Moises Arias, who had a supporting role in Hannah Montana. It was nice to see both actors back on the scene and breaking out of their Disney shells.

However, potential viewers need not fear that the film is merely a vehicle to get “washed up child stars” back in the limelight. The film’s lead actress – Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Stella – has never been on the Disney Channel. In fact, she’s a relatively unfamiliar face in Hollywood. In 2016, she had a supporting role in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split alongside James McAvoy, and she also starred in The Edge of Seventeen with Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson.

Richardson’s performance is a standout, and she delivers the tears and emotional grit without being over the top. The plot sees Stella evolve from a nervous control-freak to a brave young woman in love, and Richardson does a wonderful job portraying that transformation. Cole Sprouse’s presence is what will likely draw most teenage girls into the theaters, but hopefully Richardson’s fine work will garner her the recognition and fame she deserves going forward.

The film’s portrayal of cystic fibrosis and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – neither of which receive much attention in media – also prevent it from being just another clichéd “cancer movie.” And despite being billed as a tear-jerking romance film, Five Feet Apart surprisingly manages to balance the romance component with compelling friendships, family dynamics, and personal struggles. Because Stella and Will cannot get within five feet of each other to avoid contracting life-threatening bacteria, there isn’t the usual sex scene (or even a kiss scene) in the movie, which was actually refreshing. That’s not to say that the romance is lackluster, but it is a unique type of romance, and one that still deserves attention.

Don’t watch the trailer and write it off as just another sappy teen film; Five Feet Apart provides just enough unique twists on the genre and great performances that make it worth a trip to the theater. You’ll still need to bring your tissue box, though.