Greetings again from the darkness. The all-too-familiar sick/dying teenager genre is frequently associated with Lifetime Channel movies or something of that ilk. What sets this one apart (and above) many in the slew of similarly themed movies is the script, and more so, two outstanding lead performances. Director Justin Baldoni is best known as an actor and director of TV projects, but he (mostly) handles the script from Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis quite well.
Rising star Haley Lu Richardson (COLUMBUS, SPLIT) plays Stella, a teenager who has been dealing with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) her entire life. When we first meet her, she has checked back in to the hospital for a “tune-up”. Despite her breathing struggles and medical issues, Stella is a shining light of optimism who is friendly with the entire hospital staff and other patients. She’s also OCD and maintains a strict regimen on her meds in hopes of hanging on long enough for the holy grail – a lung transplant, or ultimately a miracle cure for this death sentence disease. Stella maintains two to-do lists: one for the day, and another for her bucket list. She also runs a YouTube channel where she educates us on what it’s like living with CF.
On one of her frequent visits to the hospital nursery to watch the newborn babies, Stella crosses paths with Will (Cole Sprouse), a more cynical CF patient who has B cepacia form – so deadly that sufferers aren’t included on the lung transplant list. In contrast to Stella, Will wonders if the hassle of treatment is worth the pain and inconvenience, when so little hope is present. CF patients are required to don gloves, masks, and oxygen packs. One rule that must not be broken is to maintain at least a 6 foot distance at all times between themselves and any other CF patient. The risk of passing along their specific mixture of bacteria is simply too great.
‘Opposites attract’ is in play here as Stella and Will share only one trait, and it’s a bond where being too close could literally kill one or both of them. These are smart and interesting characters who understand there are no “happily ever afters” in their future. We are along for the ride as they learn more about each other. Will is a talented sketch artist with a wicked sense of humor in his cartoons, while Stella carries a special burden of putting others at ease while focusing on the present and looking to the future, thanks to the exploits of her beloved older sister Abby (Sophia Bernard).
Other supporting actors include Claire Forlani as Will’s mother, Parminder Nagra (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) as the doctor, Kimberly Hebert Gregory as the strict and caring Nurse Barb, and Moises Arias as Poe, a witty gay teenager and fellow CF patient, who has been friends with Stella since they were young kids. As the romance blooms for Stella and Will, there are some too-familiar moments and a couple of lame musical interludes with slow-motion … but there are also some terrific and heartfelt scenes. In particular, a pool cue at the pool is extraordinarily tender and romantic.
The film teases us a few times with assumptions, but the theme of human touch is ever-present. For CF patients, is love selfish or is it an inherent need? ‘The lights are like stars’ is a nice touch that explains how this disease forces these folks to think a little differently and find joy in the moment … yet still keep their distance. Sure, Ms. Richardson (a bona fide star in the making) and Mr. Sprouse are a bit too old to be playing teenagers, but their talent allows us to take in the layers here with the disease and the limitations on life. The film has plenty of laughs and plenty of tears (bring your tissue) as we watch a heartfelt romance while also learning some of the challenges facing the 30,000 CF patients in the U.S.
watch the trailer: