Five Feet Apart **
Dir: Justin Baldoni. With: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani, Moises Arias. 116 mins. Cert: 12A
It’s been nearly fifty years since Love Story showed people will pay good money to watch pretty youngsters dying slowly, and five since The Fault in Our Stars revived this morbid subgenre with notable commercial success. Justin Baldoni’s middling derivative courts viewer sympathies with a novel-ish conceit, taking place almost exclusively within the hospital where perky vlogger and cystic fibrosis patient Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) has been confined as part of a drug trial. Dragging her oxygen line around intensive care, she crosses paths with a fellow trialist, floppy-haired hunk Will (Cole Sprouse), and a wicked new twist is added to an old meet-cute: they can’t get too close, lest they exchange potentially lethal lungfuls of bacteria. Here are two kids who, as test results show, could kill with a kiss.
It’s a curious hook, granted, dependent on the leads hawking up more phlegm than has ever been set before us in the course of an aspirant date movie. Putting the onus on characters who’ve been prescribed bedrest leaves these two hours a touch shuffling dramatically: you sense Baldoni killing a lot of time before he can send on the Reaper for his contracted cameo. Regular musical montages find someone or other moping in the cafeteria while something like The Fray tinkles on the soundtrack; Stella schools her devil-may-care beau via YouTube in the correct application of latex gloves. Love letters are secreted in balloons Will has to pop, filling the hospital corridors with alarming loud bangs. (The issue of who’s paying for this extended sleepover is, of course, never remotely addressed.)
Trading shamelessly on any weakness for medical soap, Baldoni returns the lamentably underemployed Parminder Nagra to the doctor’s scrubs she once wore on TV’s e.r., while allowing Richardson – whose smart choices were better showcased by last year’s Columbus – to lend individual scenes and moments an apple-cheeked vivacity. Yet she surely realises, as Fault’s Shailene Woodley did before her, that this is the kind of marshmallow martyrdom that has to be briskly worked through before they let you at the grown-up scripts. The airlessness of the single setting – a controlled environment allowing teens to approach mortality from safe distance – is only dispelled late on, with some daffily fateful business atop a frozen lake: in this case, love means pushing your luck.
Five Feet Apart is now playing in cinemas nationwide.