Coming on the heels of “Love, Simon,” Netflix’s release of “Alex Strangelove” feels like less of a breakthrough than it should – and that’s a shame.
Dropping June 8 as a direct nod to Pride month, the streaming giant’s gay teen rom-com may be cut from the same John Hughes-inspired cloth as its big-screen counterpart from earlier this spring, but it’s spiced with a flavor all its own – edgier, more irreverent, perhaps closer to the confused heart of many real-life teen coming-out stories – and deserves full attention on its own merits.
Written and directed by Craig Johnson, it’s the story of Alex (Daniel Doheny), a high school senior who seems almost too perfect to be true: cute, smart, and funny, he’s popular with cool kids and nerds alike. He’s also completely devoted to his longtime girlfriend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein) – despite the fact they still haven’t had sex. They make a special date to consummate their relationship, but still-virgin Alex is nervous about it – a situation that’s compounded when he meets Elliott (Antonio Marziale), an openly gay older boy from across town with whom he feels an immediate connection.
Anybody familiar with the standard formula of teen romances – gay or straight – will likely have a pretty good guess about where things go from there. It’s not surprising plot twists that give “Alex Strangelove” its freshness; rather, it’s the way it handles the coming-out experience without kid gloves. Alex is not presented as a “troubled” boy, just a more-or-less typical teen who happens to have a blind spot about his own sexual identity – complicated by the changing attitudes and values surrounding such matters in our modern world. It’s an approach that keeps the movie from becoming too “precious” and allows us the fun of watching him figure out something we already know.
This doesn’t mean Johnson’s script doesn’t honor its hero’s journey, or that it presents Alex as the butt of a joke. When the time comes for hard truths to be told and breakthroughs to be made, the movie’s somewhat silly tone shifts to address those moments with appropriate reverence; perhaps even more importantly, the emotional consequences they create are real – both for Alex and for the loyal Claire. It’s to the movie’s credit that it gives equal weight to the struggles of each.
It’s also to the credit of the actors. The adorable Doheny is lovable and authentic, skillfully conveying self-assured confidence while showing us the nagging uncertainties that build as he grows closer to confronting his inner truth. Weinstein is just as adept, equal parts strong and vulnerable, making her a perfect match – and foil – for her leading man. The unconventionally handsome Marziale makes for a charismatic object of desire, but he also brings enough depth to the role to make him much more. Deserving special mention is Daniel Zolghadri, as Alex’s goofy sidekick Dell, who manages to steal scenes while turning this would-be stock character into a full-fledged player in the story.
Kudos must also go, of course, to Johnson, whose screenplay and direction deftly walk the fine line between feel-good comedy and heart-tugging drama – though, thankfully, the bulk of the film maintains a bright, light-hearted feel. Indeed, there are times – particularly in a running subplot that involves a rare psychotropic fog – when it veers into a decidedly zany territory that is less reminiscent of vintage John Hughes than of fellow ‘80s teen-comedy auteur “Savage” Steve Holland, whose “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer” were wacky counterpoints to the heavier sentiment of “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty In Pink.”
True to its ‘80s roots, “Alex Strangelove” is not just silly, it’s also raunchy. These are no squeaky-clean teens; their conversations are peppered with the kind of four-letter language that would likely turn 1986 Molly Ringwald’s ears as red as her hair, and their level of sexual sophistication is likely to be a shock to anyone still foolish enough to believe that teenagers are naïve about such matters. There are times, in fact, when the movie’s R-rated sensibilities threaten to overwhelm its feel-good sweetness – especially for adults who come in with preconceived ideas about appropriate discourse in youth-oriented films.
Also potentially shocking is the inclusion of some language that might be considered homophobic; slurs and insults are thrown around – mostly by characters too immature to recognize the hurtfulness of their words – that, while certainly realistic within the movie’s high school setting, might raise eyebrows among those concerned about negative behavioral modeling. Apart from one key sequence that is meant to portray bullying, though, none of the name-calling carries any real sense of threat, and the film’s ultimate embrace of acceptance is genuine enough to compensate for any perceived lack of sensitivity.
All this might seem like over-analysis of the movie’s intentions and methods, and perhaps it is; but whenever a film emerges that is designed to depict the LGBTQ experience within the larger culture – especially when that movie is aimed at young people – it’s necessary to put it to those kinds of tests. Happily, “Alex Strangelove” passes most of them with flying colors (although, speaking of colors, it could have aimed for a higher score in the area of diversity); and while its lowbrow style keeps it from approaching the level of “important” cinema, its good-natured charm and inspiring message of inclusion give it the potential to change quite a few younger lives for the better – and that’s important enough.