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Movie review: Tear-jerker 'Five Feet Apart' tells age-old tale of boy meets girl in hospital

“FIVE FEET APART” — 2 stars — Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani, Moises Arias, Parminder Nagra; PG-13 (thematic elements, language and suggestive material); in general release; running time: 120 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The new teen romance “Five Feet Apart” manages to skate on thin ice for most of its running time, but eventually the footing gives way.

Set almost entirely in a hospital, Justin Baldoni’s “Five Feet Apart” is a love story about a pair of teenagers with cystic fibrosis. The protagonist is Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), who has just arrived for what she calls a “tuneup.” As she begins her extended stay at the hospital, we meet some of Stella’s friends and get acquainted with the harsh realities of her disease, which she explains as she records a video blog for YouTube.

Haley Lu Richardson in "Five Feet Apart," released by CBS Films and Lionsgate.
Haley Lu Richardson in "Five Feet Apart," released by CBS Films and Lionsgate.
Alfonso Bresciani

Though she’s in a ward with other CF patients — her longtime friend Poe (Moises Arias) is just down the hall — Stella and her peers are prone to passing dangerous bacteria, so to avoid infection, they are forbidden to come within 6 feet of each other.

The rule slowly becomes a problem as Stella develops affections for Will (Cole Sprouse), who arrives at the hospital to start a drug trial on an especially nasty strain of CF. As Stella explains, most CF patients expect to have limited life spans, but while a lung transplant might give her a five-year extension, Will’s condition makes transplants impossible.

Thanks to this bleak outlook, Will isn’t very keen on keeping up with his regiment, and Stella is initially turned off by his callous attitude. But this is a love story, so thanks to her OCD tendencies and “control issues,” Stella goads Will into taking his treatment seriously, and over time their relationship blossoms.

It’s a bit of a forced narrative, but one the audience will likely be able to get past, and most of “Five Feet Apart” focuses on how the youngsters try to forge a relationship that won’t allow physical contact and find meaning in a life that seems to cut them off at every turn. To make things more complicated, the ward nurse Barb (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) has already seen a relationship like theirs go bad, and she’s determined to prevent a reprise.

Cole Sprouse in "Five Feet Apart," released by CBS Films and Lionsgate.
Cole Sprouse in "Five Feet Apart," released by CBS Films and Lionsgate.
Alfonso Bresciani

A movie like this is built on chemistry, and though they get the job done, Stella and Will aren’t exactly "Casablanca's" Rick and Ilsa. Stella is well drawn, an appealing while flawed character, and Richardson does a good job of making her sympathetic and admirable. As the object of Stella’s affections, Will is a bit more idealized, and Sprouse is limited to a lot of long admiring stares and moodiness.

Taken on its own, “Five Feet Apart” is a decent enough love story, with sufficient content about cystic fibrosis to suggest it genuinely wants its audience to understand the disease. And even if it might be a little on the awkward side for younger viewers, a tender scene where Stella and Will show each other the scars they’ve taken from childhoods full of invasive operations sends a poignant message.

But thanks to a few melodramatic third act loop-de-loops that feel decidedly Nicholas Sparks-esque, Baldoni’s film ultimately comes off more as the latest entry in the “teens with terminal diseases in love” genre that kicked off with 2014’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” and followed with not one, but two recent movies where the protagonist cannot be exposed to sunlight.

In the end, the plot twists make cystic fibrosis feel like more of a device to get the tears rolling than an altruistic focus. It’s too bad, because “Five Feet Apart” has enough going for it to suggest that it might have been better than the usual tearjerker routine.

Rating explained: “Five Feet Apart” is rated PG-13, mainly for some sensuality, as well as persistent vulgar dialogue and profanity, including two instances of the F-word.