Venue reviews: Alex Strangelove

After Love, Simon brought the gay experience so admirably into the mainstream in the form of a fluffy teen comedy, it seems the financial success of recent genre revisions has begun to elicit a shift in contemporary Hollywood toward queer narratives. On its face, Alex Strangelove nods encouragingly in support of this new motion. Set in an all-American high school reminiscent of a John Hughes picture, Craig Johnson’s teen comedy hits the familiar notes of young confusion, teen awkwardness and cheek-burning humiliation, while placing issues of identity, sexuality and coming-out at its heart.

The story chronicles Alex Truelove (Daniel Donehy). Straight-A pupil, beloved class president and just geeky enough to ensure he’s not detested, Alex is a portrait of high-school success; a mantle he expects to carry into his first year at college. The set-up is punctured by the arrival of Claire of course (played frankly by Beach Rats’s Madeleine Weinstein), whose charming unflappability grabs him instantly. As their relationship develops at the breakneck pace of real high school couplehood, the pair experience a mounting pressure to take things to the next level. The concept of “doing it” is approached as frothily as it was in Sixteen Candles (the Hughes film is referenced in passing, incidentally); Alex is frightened of disappointing Claire, and Claire can’t work out why her boyfriend won’t let her “de-virginize” him. To make matters more complicated, he eventually crosses paths with Elliott (Antonio Marziale of Altered Carbon), who’s funny, pillowy-haired and openly gay. They hit it off instantly, but Alex quickly begins to surmise they may be something other than friends. Thus, his presumed heterosexuality is thrown out of the window, and the antsy teen embarks on a sexual odyssey to affirm his sexuality.

But whereas Love, Simon offered a sincere snapshot of modern, high school experience, Alex Strangelove sets its own LGBT+ concerns against a glaring nostalgia for the coming-of-age genre, which seems to have tinted its spectacles enough to gloss over the issues afflicting those films. The result is a comedy that unwittingly places the teenage mindset of the 1980’s (with Freaks and Geeks, Sixteen Candles and Porky’s fronting the crowd) into a noticeably contemporary American high school, which makes it appear out of touch with the audience it seeks to address.

Some prefer to view the film as a send-up of the teen classics, rather than a contemporary. True, Alex’s slur-slinging, leather-jacket wearing sidekick Dell (Daniel Zolghadri pulls off an unfortunate script with the charm of a hornier Neal Schweiber) recalls the bullishness of Porky’s (in one scene stripping down in the school yard before asking Alex if he likes what he sees), but it transports the almost disparaging attitudes contained within earlier films into the modern day. The Moonlight poster hanging on the wall of lip-biting love interest, Elliott places us incontestably into the here and now, at the same time Dell writes off Alex’s questioning identity as “epic neurosis” manifested by his anxiety about screwing Claire. I’ve no issue with Alex Strangelove as a modern homage to the 80’s teen comedy, but there are problems with updating the setting, while failing to recognise that attitudes surrounding sex, gender and identity have moved on.

Now, I don’t believe for one minute that this is a malevolent film. Aside from being partly-based on Johnson’s own experiences as a gay teen, there are glimmering attempts in there to recognise identity for the spectrum it is. Certainly, it’s encouraging to see a group of young adults acknowledge preferences still hovering on the fringes of mainstream awareness, from polyamory, to non-binary identity.

Yet, Strangelove frequently takes on more than it should, leaving itself little time to explore anything more than basic (at times confusing) assumptions about the LGBT+ community.  In one scene, there’s an odd mix-up between polyamory and pansexuality (which I’d imagine could yield genuine confusion, given neither are particularly well-discussed in the public sphere), before one of the characters trivialises it as a “new thing the kids are experimenting with.”

The message lapses in on itself, presenting incorrect assumptions as harmful precursors for bullying. I suppose there’s a case to be made about how the film tries to present roguish banter as an equal form of harassment, but misunderstandings are so inconsequential in Alex Strangelove that we leave with the assumption that it’s okay if you’re doing it to be funny.

Alex Strangelove is admirable when it commits fully to its hero. Amid attempts to cover as much LGBT+ ground as possible are the genuinely rather sweet instances of self-discovery shared between Alex and Elliott. It’s ironically when the film is content to watch Elliott goofing up his bedroom in a fantastic pink wig, or as the pair sit back-to-back in a frank, untactile heart-to-heart. As encouraging as it is to see another teen comedy addressing queer representation, it’s plain to see where Alex Strangelove’s priorities lay. While 80’s nostalgia isn’t an abominable aesthetic (please see outside your window for details), it’s unwise to evoke a previous era without contemplating why things might have changed.

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October 2021
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