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Star-crossed bummer

A saccharine tearjerker can’t escape the clichés

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in “Five Feet Apart”

David Fincher, the dark mind behind such uplifting films as “Seven” and “Fight Club,” once said that over time, every love story becomes a tragedy. In the new romantic weeper “Five Feet Apart,” about two star-crossed teenagers who suffer from cystic fibrosis, time is of the essence and tragedy becomes a matter of inches.

Haley Lu Richardson plays Stella, your typical Gen-Z teenager. She spends her days live-streaming uplifting insights into her daily routine, tinkering with coding apps, and talking about boys with her friends—all from within the confines of her hospital room. Stella suffers from cystic fibrosis (CF), a debilitating genetic disorder resulting in frequent lung infections. Treatment for cystic fibrosis includes a battery of painful surgeries, breathing exercises, and lots of pills. There is no cure.

Stella has taken up residency in the treatment ward along with a handful of other teen “CF-ers” including Poe (Moises Arias) Stella’s resident side-kick, and Will, played by Cole Sprouse—the former child-actor-turned-heartthrob thanks to “Riverdale,” the gritty Archie Comics reboot. Will is the treatment ward’s newest resident. He skulks around sketching and brooding and rubbing Stella the wrong way. Personalities clash, and doomed, undying love ensues.

Moises Arias as Poe has some of the more surprisingly emotional scenes, while ultimately falling into more tragic, albeit contrived, circumstances. The moody, sullen love-interest Sprouse often looks more like a living Edward Gorey character than your typical Hollywood hunk. But it’s Haley Lu Richardson who shoulders the dramatic load in this film, and she shines as Stella. Her range from “The Edge of Seventeen” to “Columbus” to last year’s “Support the Girls” has always been delightful to watch, and “Five Feet Apart” adds a new dimension to her repertoire.

One of the film’s few strengths is in leaning into the gritty, handheld approach more akin to indie dramas than the saccharine gloss frequently deployed in the doomed love story genre—a choice that elevates the film from its more network-serialized drama style. And therein lies the rub with “Five Feet Apart”: It often transcends the expectations of its genre while remaining beholden to the formulaic contrivances of the tear-jerker precepts.

“Five Feet Apart” never quite escapes the trappings of its melodramatic plot. Despite rare moments of genuine feeling and surprise, the film is littered with formulaic hiccups that come standard with the tragic love story. The central relationship between Stella and Will starts off rocky—even over-the-top corny at times—yet it’s a testament to the commitment of Richardson and Sprouse that elevates “Five Feet Apart.”

The movie has its moments of transcendent emotion and heart-wrenching vulnerability. (I won’t lie: the theater got surprisingly dusty a couple times.) Plus, in the lead up to the inevitable glut of CGI-heavy superhero fare summer has become dependent upon, “Five Feet Apart” is quite the compelling alternative.

Sprouse and Richardson are deeply affecting as the doomed couple destined to never truly feel the power of each others touch, lest it kill them. And often the conflict between them is one of frustration from falling in love while never getting to share the intimate connection love affords—not unlike the experience of watching the movie itself. — charles elmore

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