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It's easy to fall in love with 'Five Feet Apart'

‘Five Feet Apart’

3 out of 5 stars

Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Claire Forlani, Kimberly Hebert Gregory

Director: Justin Baldoni

Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, language

Run time: 120 minutes

Young love that is complicated by a major medical issue is nothing new. It’s been the premise of feature films such as “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and — for those of you no longer in Hollywood’s target audience — “Love Story.”

The latest is “Five Feet Apart,” from director and South Medford High graduate Justin Baldoni (“Jane the Virgin”), where Haley Lu Richardson (“Split”) and Cole Sprouse (“The Suite Life on Deck”) play teenagers who fall in love but can never touch because they are both battling the highly contagious cystic fibrosis (CF).

The one thing all these movies have in common that kept them from melting into a forgettable ooze of sentimentality is the courage, strength and absolute conviction to love that the cast and crew bring to the production. If there is even a hint that the main thrust is to capitalize on the tragedy, the film becomes an insult to the players, viewers and anyone dealing with the medical condition.

Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening genetic disease that makes the body produce thick, sticky mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs. The film’s title comes from how Richardson’s character, Stella Grant, decides to defy CF rules that patients must stay 6 feet apart for their own safety and move a foot closer to Will Newman (Sprouse), the young man who has captured her heart. The victory is small but is one example of Stella’s courage.

“Five Feet Apart” certainly will grab your heart and squeeze every last tear out of you, but because of Richardson’s wonderfully energetic and smart performance, the final result isn’t one that will leave you feeling sorry for the pair, but be touched by them as those who must deal with a love that should have never happened.

Richardson has more of a chance to shine as Stella hosts a daily online chat to talk about her battle with CF. The connection to the outside world becomes even more important when a medical issue keeps her from traveling with her friends. That’s when she meets Will, a patient who has opted not to waste time on his hospital procedures but use that time to live life as much as he can. It’s not surprising that the opposites attract, but the connection is what makes the movie work so well.

Sprouse gives Richardson a great acting partner, but his performance resonates with just enough of his work on “Riverdale” to keep it from being as fresh and exciting as Richardson’s work. It is tough to play the brooding half of a couple and Sprouse does give the role life. His work is just caught in the acting shadow Richardson casts.

The script by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis does a superb job of showing the world Stella and Will live in without getting too bogged down in medical jargon. The purpose of the film from Baldoni is to be as honest as possible while giving the actors plenty of room to show the birth and growth of young love in a deeply contaminated soil. That is accomplished through the solid writing, intimate direction and strong acting.

There’s little that can be said about the ending without spoiling the wonderful love story. It is just a pleasure that Baldoni, Daughtry and Iaconis never gave in to the necessity of having a predictable ending. The honesty they embrace so deeply from the opening moments never waivers for some cinematic situation.

It is fair to say that taking tissues to the theater is an imperative idea as they will be needed while falling for this love story that features a young couple but will touch anyone of any age.

Haley Lu Richardson in “Five Feet Apart.”(CBS Films)
Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in “Five Feet Apart.” (CBS Films)