Sure, it’s schmaltzy. That’s a given in any doomed teenagers romance.
Almost as manipulative as “Everything, Everything,” or “A Walk to Remember,” less wrenching than “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” more medical than “The Fault in Our Stars,” almost as drawn-out as, oh, “Romeo and Juliet” — that’s “Five Feet Apart.”
But as anybody who writes a Hollywood check will tell you, cast this overlong dance with death and Cystic Fibrosis right, and the damned thing will work.
That, too, is “Five Feet Apart,” a tear-jerker that jerks tears, a sweetly improbable waltz down a very familiar cinematic path that delivers exactly what it promises, no mean feat in the movies these days.
Haley Lu Richardson of “Split” and “The Edge of Seventeen” is Stella, our heroine-narrator, a “My Daily Breath” online vlogger who posts self-deprecating videos about her struggle with CF from her world, which is pretty much limited to her hospital room.
Her case of CF is so severe she needs a lung transplant before she reaches her senior year in high school. Her regimen is all about prep for that transplant — lung draining, drug taking, lung-exercising and avoiding the other CF patients on her wing at Saint Grace because anything resembling contact could be fatal to them both.
She’s perky, wistful and winsome with her friends headed off to winter break, flippant with her nurse (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).
“What would I do without you?”
Then the skinny young Johnny Depp rebel (Cole Sprouse of TV’s “Riverdale”) shows up. His name’s Will, and she’s not interested in his distractions.
“You need to lighten up,” he philosophizes. “It’s just life. It’ll be over before you know it.”
The movie? Not so fast.
We have yet to meet Poe (Moises Arias of “The Kings of Summer” and “Pitch Perfect 3”), Stella’s lifelong CF-Gay BFF on the ward, the parents or Dr. Hamid (Parminder Nagra, a star since “Bend it Like Beckham).
We have yet to see the bickering not-a-couple work their way toward a cuter than cute “first date.” Or face the multiple medical crises brought on by a hospital full of young people straining at the yoke of their illness, wanting to connect — to experience the human touch.
The rules? They begin with the fact that they MUST remain “SIX FEET APART.” As that’s not the title of this Justin Baldoni film — script by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis — we know we’re dealing with some seriously rebellious rebels here, right?
The complication? Well, Stella isn’t just a stickler for rules and regimentation, she’s “anal, to the point of ‘clinically OCD.'” She’s in charge of her own meds, treatment gear (lung clearing, mucus sucking) and routine. He’s…casual, fatalistic, even.
“Stella, nothing is going to save our lives. We’re breathing borrowed air. Enjoy it!”
Her first hint that she cares is her plea that he follow his regimen, “strictly and completely.” Being anal retentive, she organizes his pills and gives him the app she developed to keep him on task.
It must be love.
“Five Feet Apart” sinks or swims on the couple cast to run the show here, and Richardson is an open-hearted wonder, a human empathy machine. We connect with her in a heartbeat, even though she’s a “type” playing a “type.”
Sprouse makes Will’s caricature of a dying-and-I-know-it teen warm and winning and irresistible — at least to Stella. We buy the connection, buy into the low-heat/pool-cue’s length romance.
Her cautious optimism, his fatalism, her methodical practicality and tact, his Devil may care myopia and bluntness– it works.
“We don’t have time for delicacy, Stella.”
The script is stuffed with quotable doom — “I’ve been dying since I was born.” “This disease is a prison.” And of course, there are the BIG GESTURES.
All of which any adult will expect and see coming long before they arrive. But the teen audience this is intended for? Lend them your hankies. Just try not to be a creeper about it.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, language and suggestive material
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Parminder Nagra, Claire Forlani
Running time: 1:56