Stella (Richardson) is the organized type, obvious from her instructional YouTube videos, self-administered medication, and neatly kept hospital room-though the movie insists on having her explain that she has control issues anyway. Will (Sprouse), who has a more severe bacterial strain that eliminates him from the possibility of a lung transplant (something that can buy cystic fibrosis patients an extra five years or so), is more fatalistic and rebellious, an artist who regards Stellas diligence with skepticism. Wills condition also means that any physical proximity to Stella is a major risk for her; theyre advised to stay at least six feet apart at all times (why Five Feet Apart, then? Dont worry, theres eventually an explanation).
When Stella and Will meet-at the hospital, naturally; its a little odd that they havent met before-theyre immediately at odds, then eventually love each other. The movie cant quite make either of these plot turns convincing, despite the best efforts of Richardson and Sprouse (especially Richardson; Sprouse is leaning heavily on his Riverdale persona, which involves saying extremely obvious things with the smug confidence of a visionary iconoclast). Even though theyre a study in opposites-attract contrasts, Stella and Will hit all the major romantic relationship beats mostly because, well, Five Feet Apart requires them to. Wills spontaneity, Stellas sense of humor, and both characters rapport with Stellas best friend, fellow CF patient Poe (Moises Arias) all feel utterly canned. Like Sprouse, director Justin Baldoni is a regular on The CW (hes an actor on Jane on the Virgin), and he often keeps the rhythm of a middling teen show, affecting a kind of faux-self-awareness.
There are better, more affecting moments. Theres something kind of rueful and bittersweet about the way Stella and Will are forced to conduct their relationship-first as reluctant sorta-allies, then (very briefly) as friends, then (to no ones surprise) romantic partners-in a largely mediated context. Theyre hospital neighbors, but its more expedient for them to text, IM, and video-chat with each other-which in some ways makes them maybe not so different than teenagers living a chunk of their lives on Instagram. Theres at least one well-flowing montage of their virtual courtship-though as with many sequences, the movie drowns it out with insistent soundtrack cues.
That maudlin, cranked-up soundtrack also points to the ways that Five Feet Apart goes beyond a mere CW weepie. Though both the emotional labor and the physical logistics of two kids with cystic fibrosis make the movie more compelling than your average Nicholas Sparks picture, the movie goes overboard in its final half-hour, working the melodrama into a rich lather, then wringing cheap suspense out of its characters health. This is supposed to portray the fragility of their lives and the weight of their decisions, but it comes across as, frankly, kind of exploitative. (Imagine a teen romance where a cancer patient weakened from treatment must traverse a high wire for overelaborate yet kind of pointless reasons; thats what the climax of Five Feet Apart is like.) Still, for some readers and viewers, the melodrama is the point. Fans of the book might like to know: How does the movies ending differ from the original text?
(This is SEMI-SPOILER territory here; I wont reveal the specifics of either ending, but if you want to go in completely clean, you should turn back now.)
The answer is that the movies ending is pretty much the same as the books, for good reason: The movie is not really an adaptation of the book. The book is an adaptation of the screenplay for Five Feet Apart, which writers Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry sold in 2017. Author Rachel Lippincott adapted the script to a book that was published in 2018, and probably would have been in progress around when the movie was in production. Essentially, the book exists to promote the film, which probably isnt a bad way to drum up some interest in a mid-to-low budget studio release in a theatrical landscape dominated by big-ticket franchises.
The finished film does depart from the book by eliminating what amounts to a narrative epilogue involving a reunion between some of the characters. The movie ends earlier, but its ending is included in the book version. Its one of the films instances of restraint.