Five Feet Apart

 

            Cystic fibrosis is a horrible disease that affects the respiratory system.  It can be treated, but there's no cure.  People who have it are very susceptible to infection, especially from each other.  So they have to stay far enough apart for the cough germs not to travel.  About six feet.

            Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) is one of those bright, active, animated teenagers with an infectious smile and a friendly demeanor.  Everybody likes her.  We first meet her when she is with a couple of her friends who are getting ready to go on a vacation adventure.  Everybody seems to be in an upbeat mood, until the friends leave.  Then we find out that Stella is actually in her hospital room, surrounded by her regimen of breathing treatments, pills, and evidence of an extended stay.  On her video blog, she posts that she is in for a “tuneup.”  The truth is, she's not only having difficulty breathing, she's also developing an infection at the portal of her feeding tube.  Despite her determined vivaciousness, her health is not strong.  But she has resolved to not let it get her down.

            Of course, the upbeat exterior is hiding a significant amount of anger and grieving.  She's still distraught about the death of her sister, Abby, who wasn't supposed to go first.  But trying to live her life to the fullest, possibly as a reaction to Stella's constant struggles, Abby died in a cliff-diving accident.  Stella still grieves.  Stella's best friend on the floor is Poe (Moses Arias), who's a skinny kid that also suffers from C.F., but sneaks down the halls on a skateboard when he can.  He's gay, but he has a tendency to run away from relationships, because, well, intimacy is difficult.  It's fraught with all kinds of emotional baggage for these CF people who know they don't have much longer.  They can tell by the way they can't cure their persistent cough.

            The newest CF patient is Will (Cole Sprouse), who is a talented artist with a sour attitude.  He doesn't want to stay on the regimen, because, he figures, what's the use?  But the OCD Stella is so adamant that he stick to the program that in exchange, he elicits a promise from her that she will let him draw her (no, it's not “The Titanic”).  Will and Stella's relationship is a roller coaster because neither one of them has had much practice at this, and neither one of them really knows how to handle their feelings about each other.  Poe helps, as the go-between, but eventually, Will and Stella figure it out.  They hold a cue stick, on each end, to approximate the distance they have to stay away from each other.  (It's more like five feet than six, but then, that's their way of pushing back against the relentless disease.)

            Their budding romance is compelling because they have so many limitations on them.  But their physical proximity helps.  They can slide notes under each other's door.  They can meet in the atrium after hours and pretend they have the place to themselves.  And they can go on the roof, out in the cold, to gaze at the distant lights and imagine themselves being able to see more of the world than they can.

            Of course we're rooting for them, even though we know it's doomed to never be eligible for happily ever after.  But then, when you're five feet apart, maybe happy for a time is more than enough.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association