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'Five Feet Apart' review: First-rate teen romance with engaging characters, appealing stars

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in "Five

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in "Five Feet Apart." Photo Credit: CBS Films / Patti Perret

PLOT Two ailing teenagers risk death to be together.

CAST Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias

RATED PG-13 (themes of sexuality and death)

LENGTH 1:55

BOTTOM LINE A first-rate teen romance with engaging characters and appealing stars.

If the new popularity of horror films reflects our fears and anxieties as a nation, what’s behind the explosion of romances about life-threatening illness?

They’ve been a perennial favorite at least since 1970s “Love Story,” but the success of 2015’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” about two young cancer patients, kicked off a race to find the next terminally hot ailment: leukemia in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” spinal injury in “Me Before You,” autoimmune failure in “Everything, Everything,” an adverse reaction to sunlight in “Midnight Sun.” The illnesses may be real, but in the movies they tend to feel phony — screenwriterly devices to heighten an otherwise bland drama.

“Five Feet Apart,” unexpectedly, feels different. It treats its chosen illness, cystic fibrosis, with seriousness and respect. It creates two lead characters, Stella and Will, who feel like real people rather than Romantic ideals. It also features two charismatic actors, Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, who bring those characters to life.

The film opens with Stella and her girlfriends bantering about parties and boys with upbeat rock music on the stereo. It’s only when Stella waves goodbye, shuts the door and dons her oxygen tube that we realize she lives in a hospital. It’s an evocative moment from Richardson (“Columbus,” “Split”), a young actress with expressive crescent-moon eyes, nicely staged by first-time director Justin Baldoni (the creator of “My Last Days,” a CW series about real people with serious illnesses). Stella is a beauty, but we also learn she's an overachiever whose hand-washing problem suggests an understandable fear of death.

Will, the bad boy of the CF crowd, feels less fully drawn, but Sprouse (of the Disney Channel series “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and The CW's "Riverdale") gives the role a puckish humor. Will is a moper but also a joker, a duality that makes him feel like a real kid with his own issues. Stella already has a confidant, Poe (Moises Arias, another Disney Channel alum and rather good in the obligatory gay-friend role). Will, the risk-taker, however, may be just what she needs.

The film’s title comes from the six-foot distance CF patients must maintain from each other to prevent infections. Cheating by a foot, then, is as good as a stolen kiss. (The lovely script is by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis.) The first proper date between Will and Stella is a charming sequence that, despite the pool cue they hold between them for safety, even turns shyly erotic. Despite the occasional cliché and contrivance, “Five Feet Apart” does what other movies in its subgenre often can’t: It makes us ache for two people to be together, though we know it’ll end in tears.

Before his starring role in “Five Feet Apart,” Cole Sprouse was a Disney Channel cutie (along with his twin brother, Dylan) on the show “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.” Here are four more Disney Channel alums who have gone on to big-screen careers:

VANESSA HUDGENS The star of the channel’s “High School Musical” films has appeared in an eclectic assortment of movies, from Zack Snyder’s action-driven “Sucker Punch” (2011) to Harmony Korine’s teensploitation flick “Spring Breakers.” Hudgens played a young executive alongside Jennifer Lopez in last year’s “Second Act.”

BELLA THORNE When her Disney series “Shake It Up” ended in 2013, Thorne moved quickly into movies, landing a spot in the Adam Sandler comedy “Blended” in 2014 and the underrated teen rom-com “The DUFF” in 2015.

ZENDAYA Thorne’s co-star on “Shake It Up” leapt onto the big screen in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as a new, snarkier version of the long-running MJ character. She’ll return in June for the sequel, “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

ZAC EFRON Arguably the most high-profile Disney alum (also of the “High School Musical” films), Efron made an unexpected pivot into comedy, appearing in “Neighbors,” “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” “Baywatch” and 2017’s Oscar-nominated “The Disaster Artist.” — RAFER GUZMAN

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