Five Feet Apart, starring Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, is anything but orthodox in the story delivery of two terminally ill teens.
It’s safe to say most people are relatively familiar with how these love stories go–a well-structured terminally ill girl meets a risk-taking (and maybe not-so-terminally ill) boy. It’s love at first sight and they spend the remainder of their days living life to the fullest. But Five Feet Apart is not that kind of story. How do Stella and Will end up spending so much time together? Her OCD.
Stella (played by Haley Lu Richardson), has not only been living with Cystic Fibrosis since she was a child, but also has clinical Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The CF patient has been in and out of the same hospital her whole life and has become acquainted with almost staff member and patient, except Will (Cole Sprouse). But Stella isn’t swooned by Will’s good looks, his charm or their shared commonality of crappy lungs. Rather, she’s obsessed with his inability to organize his daily medication regimen.
Unlike The Fault in Our Stars, Now Is Good and Everything, Everything, Justin Baldoni’s romance film isn’t about two people who cross items off their bucket list or have romantic kiss scenes. Five Feet Apart is about two long-time patients who discover how to get over their fears and emotional traumas, all within the rooms, hallways and corridors of their neighborhood hospital.
Also, at the risk of catching each other’s bacteria, Will, Stella and their other CF friend Poe (Moises Arias), are never allowed to touch.
This is one of the most important messages in the film–the significance of touch. Rather than Five Feet Apart focusing on the love story between just two patients, the story is expanded to family and friends and the frustration that comes with uncontrolled, untimely death and staying six feet apart at all times. It’s an extremely realistic story about life spent in a hospital, the obstacles that can simply never be overcome and the little victories worth praising.
Despite speculation about Stella and Will’s relationship being based off the love story of two 2009 CF patients, Katie nee Donovan and Dalton Prager, Justin Baldoni was actually inspired by famous YouTuber Claire Wineland. Baldoni said the young patient “became like a little sister to me,” after working with her during filming of his 2016 documentary, My Last Days.
“It was after my experience with her — I just fell in love with who she was, and how she lived her life, and how she constantly chose joy and really wanted to live,” said Baldoni in an interview with Bustle. “And the thought that life can be made into a beautiful piece of art regardless of your circumstances, that really made me feel curious about this illness in the first place.”
Baldoni asked Wineland about what her life was like when she was 16, living with CF and spending day after day in the hospital. When asking if she had ever dated someone with CF, Wineland enlightened Baldoni about the risks of “cross-infection” and how people with CF can’t be closer than six feet. This became the catalyst for Five Feet Apart. This premise also bears a striking resemblance to the Japanese story, The Forest of Firefly Lights, where if Hotaru touches her friend Gin, he will disapear forever.
Though she was part of Baldoni’s team, sitting with the writers during production, Wineland passed away from a stroke September 2018, a week before her lung transplant and before even seeing the director’s cut. But no one believed Wineland died with any regrets.
“You’re never going to be happy with what you get, unless you’re happy with what you have,” said Wineland at the 2015 Life is Beautiful Conference. “And that’s what you have to do with your life. You have to look at all of it. All the pain, all the loneliness, all the beauty, all the friendship, all the family…and what can I make with it.”
Stella’s remarkable, and spot-on, resemblance to Wineland in both looks and personality gives the film a more tangible worth. This isn’t a love story to satisfy audiences need to see characters life happily ever after. It’s about real sacrifice and how shared emotion and understanding run almost as deep as physical intimacy–especially for those who can never have it.
Richardson’s performance makes Stella one of the most captivating characters to ever grace the big screen in a terminal love tale. Her computer programming brains, humor and sharp wit give Richardson’s on-camera character more essence than cinema’s typical dying girl looking for ways to forget the realities of life.
Like Wineland, Stella’s humor and glow stems from making the most of her circumstances, seeing her illness as a unique quality she could (literally) channel for good, rather than trying to find ways to outrun her CF.
In a similar fashion, Sprouse’s character, Will, is not as tormented of a soul as some bad-boy antiheroes in most tragic romances. While understandably frustrated by his treatments, impending death and inability to touch the girl he’s fallen for, Stella never serves as a typical girlfriend made emotional caretaker. In fact, Will is the one who tries to pull Stella out of her dark corners, but not through daring hospital escapes or the neglect of her treatment.
Despite his own disdain for daily pill regimens, Will is primarily the one who elects to side with the doctoral rules and do what’s realistically best for his and Stella’s conditions. While comical and charismatic, Will is also very calm and cool when it comes to making decisions. Though this might be unsatisfactory for those wanting to see a young man controlled entirely by his feelings of undying love, Sprouse gives audiences a refreshing look at down-to-earth love making healing and understanding the focal point in this story instead of just young love.
“Human touch. We need that touch from the one we love almost as much as we need air to breathe,” says Richardson as Stella in the film. “I never understood that, until I couldn’t have it.”
It might seem like a small victory–getting one foot closer to each other or getting to hug the person you love. Compared to being whisked away to a foreign country or someone’s “first time,” the desires of Will and Stella may not seem like much, but gets to the heart of what a normal person with CF goes through every day. Five Feet Apart touches the core of reality and expresses through Stella and Will a circumstantial understanding that goes beyond typical love stories.
“Touch him, touch her,” says Stella to the audience. “…Life will be over before you know it.”
What did you think of Five Feet Apart? Any new romance films you’re excited to see in theaters? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.