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While bemoaning the imperfect state of her love life, a character in Alex Strangelove unfavorably compares her personal drama to that of “this old movie my mom made me watch”. Briefly, you wonder what idealised golden age romance has left her heartsore and starry-eyed: Casablanca? Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Of course not: she means Sixteen Candles, John Hughes’ now 34-year-old high school love triangle, of which this well-meaning Netflix original is quite plainly a gawky adolescent descendant. If that makes you feel old, well, Craig Johnson’s perky tale of a virginal teenage boy working out sex, sexuality and the whole damn thing isn’t made for you.
Whether kids will think it’s for them is another question – one to which, as the film joins Netflix’s unmeasured content mill, we’ll never get a firm answer. Like Love, Simon, the recent multiplex charmer that brought gay desire to the foreground of the teen mall movie, Alex Strangelove attempts a post-millennial shake-up of identity politics in the genre that Hughes built. Unlike Love, Simon, the carnal peak of which was a soft kiss atop a ferris wheel, Johnson’s film has slightly hornier matters on its mind.
Which isn’t to say there’s anything rude or remote off-colour about Alex Strangelove – nor anything so eccentric or madcap as to justify its Kubrickian title reference. It’s set in a bright, frictionless, diverse-but-not-too-diverse pocket of suburbia where children are largely, acceptingly versed in the LGBTQI alphabet – a world that feels contemporary, certainly, but not quite authentic. Johnson, who negotiated more adult concerns to sharper effect in the sibling comedy The Skeleton Twins, puts such tidy quips and such glib observations in the mouths of his teens that they occasionally sound more like middle-aged comics than confused, hormone-raddled adolescents. “Isn’t anyone just plain straight any more?” sighs one boy after noting the plethora of sexual preferences and identities within the student body. Does anyone younger than Michael McIntyre talk like this?
In any event, upon meeting our hero Alex Truelove (Danny Doheny), viewers will suss out well before he does that he’s not just plain straight at all. A smart, pretty, clean-scrubbed 16-year-old – the kind who passes for a geek only in a Hollywood-cast classroom – who’s been skittishly skirting the issue of sex with his girlfriend Claire (the wonderful Madeline Weinstein), a mature, level-headed type who acts far more like his BFF than his lover, earns him the mockery of his dorky pals, though they can scarcely chat up a girl between them. Or a boy, for that matter, which Alex inadvertently does quite effectively at a house party, where he hits it off with Elliot (Antonio Marziale), a gay, Art Garfunkel-haired college freshman who goes to indie gigs in Brooklyn and plays Dusty Springfield in his car. Hanging out with Elliot, Alex feels stirrings he’s never felt with Claire, even as he sets his mind on having sex with her with a mixture of passionless determination and abject terror.
We know where all this is going, of course, but Alex doesn’t. That’s both the truth and the charm of Johnson’s script which, amid its various too-cute contrivances, is written with a tender, empathetic understanding of how hard it can be to see yourself at a certain malleable age; no matter how much the social environment around alternative sexuality shifts and clears, determining your own identity is never as easy as checking a box. That said, a strange streak of old-school conservatism sneaks in when the physicality of gay romance is tackled. Heterosexual sex may be shown and discussed here in ribald terms, but two boys doing anything more than locking lips on screen – fully clothed, of course – is off the table.
Alex Strangelove is most credible and affecting when the kids at its centre speak out, act out and make out with the insecurity and inconsistency of, well, kids. There’s a depiction here of fumbling, failed intercourse so aching and awkward that Ian McEwan could stand to take notes; key breakups and personal confessions are articulated and performed with authentic, nerve-spiked intimacy. Its best, most bruised passages revolve not around Alex and Elliot, who perhaps rather aptly comes off as a hipster mirage of gay liberation – the man Alex wants to be, maybe, more than he wants to fuck. Rather, it’s Claire, beautifully played by Weinstein with vulnerability and peppery insight, who holds the film’s heart, ensuring that the pain of being undesired doesn’t go unfelt against Alex’s keen, tumbling rush of self-discovery. (Weinstein – no relation to Harvey, incidentally – also impressed with a comparable character arc in Eliza Hittman’s far rawer, bleaker coming-out study Beach Rats, which may as well be set in a different dimension from this film; here’s hoping we see her in more generously rewarded parts soon.)
Between these moments of candour and clarity, however, Johnson appears to become overly preoccupied with making a Teen Movie™, with all the cuddly Disney Channel hijinks, mild gross-out gags and marshmallow moralising that entails. Alex Strangelove feels furthest from its intended audience when its characters are licking hallucinogenic frogs, vomiting gummy worms and spouting the hackneyed animal kingdom analogies that the script unwisely makes its framing device. Sometimes – most of the time, actually – teenagers do nothing zanier than sit, talk, drink and, if they’re lucky, get naked. When Alex Strangelove simply cops to that, it earns its John Hughes stripes.
- Alex Strangelove is available on Netflix from 8 June
Source: The Guardian
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