Bring the tissues. Consider a towel. Get ready to bawl.

“Five Feet Apart” is the latest in the terminal-teen-romance genre (think “The Fault in Our Stars”), and it is surprisingly affecting for a movie that follows a familiar formula.

But this fine film takes its disease — cystic fibrosis — seriously. It takes its teens seriously and their one-shot-at-love romance.



And we have to take its two lead actors seriously because they create characters that give us all the feels.

This is a movie that can make you cry, but it can make you feel better, too, about people and about the world in general.

Think “Romeo and Juliet” meets “ER” and just go see it. I saw it with my teen daughter, and we shared something pretty special.

After seeing her in supporting roles in “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Split” and more, actress Haley Lu Richardson breaks out here as Stella, the brave, bubbly young woman who is running out of time.

She has trouble breathing, with about 50 percent lung capacity. She needs a transplant for new lungs, and she needs it soon.

This is tough stuff, but a pair of first-time screenwriters and a new director deliver dire circumstances, humor, hope and love in equal doses.

Unabashed romanticism is rare: I can’t remember a recent movie in which so many characters told so many others “I love you” so many times.

You may know Justin Baldoni for playing the hunky Rafael on “Jane the Virgin” on TV, but he makes an exceptional feature-film directing debut that follows up on another of his side projects: as producer of an uplifting TV documentary series, “My Last Days,” about patients with terminal illnesses.

In Stella, he creates a young woman who embraces life, despite her limitations, with her many friends, as well as her nurses and fellow “CFer” patients like Poe (the irascible Moises Arias), both of whom she’s gotten to know too well over the years.

And then there’s her web series in which Stella educates others about cystic fibrosis in amusing ways from her hospital room, which is a great device for the movie to educate all of us about a disease with an average lifespan in the mid-30s.

Richardson can go from lit-up-with-life happy to depressed to distraught easily in a second, playing a character whose best days would be considered “worst days” to most of us considering the challenges, and she is completely believable.

She is nearly matched in this regard by Cole Sprouse, the dark-haired charmer known to most as Jughead on TV’s “Riverdale” (or in my house, according to my 14-year-old, as her “future husband”).

He plays Will, the patient whose cystic fibrosis is attacking his body even faster, making this pretty boy artist even more of a rebel with anger about his reality.

They would appear to be very different people, but opposites attract in a way that is very familiar — and too easy — and yet also unique.

The respect that the filmmakers have for these characters, and how they are tested, is always obvious, and how they allow love to bloom in a movie that takes place entirely in a hospital is their best device.

The characters can’t touch each other. Their germs could so easily wreck any other patient’s system that they all must stay several feet apart, hence the title.

The challenge forces the storytelling to be creative in how it creates closeness between young people who can never touch, much less kiss, and gives the romance an old-fashioned feel that feels original in such a modern movie.

Those seeing the heartfelt “Five Feet Apart” may laugh, they may cry, and they might even swoon, sometimes all at the same time.

Michael Smith, 918-581-8479, michael.smith@tulsaworld.com, Twitter: @michaelsmithTW

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