BY SUZANNE KARIOKI
LGBT+ films and TV shows are often downers - by the end of the film, someone dies, either because of AIDS, murder or suicide. Things are looking up with the release of cheerful teen romcoms like indie film GBF (2014) and Fox’s Love, Simon (2018). Netflix, in its endless quest to dominate in the war between streaming services, released Alex Strangelove (2018) in April, only a month after Love, Simon. Alex Strangelove is a coming-of-age story about a teenager with a Five Year Plan who finds himself stumbling into adulthood rather than triumphantly strolling into it.
Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) is an awkward high school senior with a Plan, which involves college, a wife and children before 30. Alex is charming in a nerdy sort of way. His teachers like him, and so do most of his peers. Dating his best friend Claire (Madeline Weinstein) is the obvious choice; she’s his best friend, has known her for years, and his parents approve. And like any high school senior, everyone - Claire, their mutual friends and every teenager with a pulse - expects that they’ll eventually have sex. Naturally, it doesn’t work out that way.
After one drink at a party (and a lot of gummy worms), Alex stumbles into an upstairs bedroom and meets Elliot (Antonio Marziale), a confident, laid-back college freshman. Alex and Elliot hit it off immediately (with the help of a little weed) and it isn’t long before Alex falls head over heels - and then panics, runs out of the room and vomits gummy worms all over Claire in a spectacular rainbow arc.
Alex Strangelove is interesting because it follows a protagonist in an LGBT movie that isn’t quite sure what they should identify as. Alex doesn’t really know where to turn in order to figure it out. Part of it comes from the fact that his greatest weakness is his fear of conflict and disappointing people, to the point where he almost resigns himself to a life with Claire rather than ruin his Plan. His only close friends - Claire and Dell (Daniel Zolghadri) - are both straight, and have very (very) rudimentary understandings of sexuality. When Alex tries coming out as bisexual (at this point still dating Claire while guiltily pining for Elliot), Dell argues that only attention-seeking straight girls at parties are bisexual - and drops his pants to prove to Alex that he can’t be into guys if he finds Dell’s penis unappetizing.
Strangelove is also frustrating because of how it treats bisexuality as a stepping stone to Alex’s true identity and something that’s...valid, I guess. Alex realises he isn’t bi, but there aren’t any actual bisexual characters in the rest of the movie. It also features an incredibly white cast, with the only prominent person of color being Dell, who’s brash, loud and mostly intended for sassy comic relief. With so few movies choosing to cast people of color (especially with Love, Simon getting a lot of flak for being another movie about a white twink), never mind choosing to fully embrace bisexual characters, Strangelove wallows in the young-white-gay formula of its forefathers.
Like its protagonist, the movie is a little confused, dazzled by the sort of special effects that adorn teen romance novellas and offering a character that’s a little too squeaky clean (although it makes sense for the genre - plenty of straight romances have characters that aren’t quite flawed enough). Alex’s romantic interests aren’t given much credit either. Claire spends the first half of the movie being sweet, funny and charming, but soon devolves into an angry, judgemental harpy who’s furious at Alex for flaking out during all their sex attempts. She’s still is a high schooler and has her fair share of insecure, teenage girl problems but the movie makes her seem more inconsiderate and manipulative (because why can’t she figure out that Alex is having a sexual crisis?) than understandably confused and frustrated. Elliot is suave, curly-haired and a little mysterious - but almost too mysterious. Elliot is in college, knows that he’s gay and doesn’t flaunt it but is comfortable in it. And that’s about all we get.
But it makes sense that Alex spent most of his life thinking he was straight. Regardless of how many characters and celebrities come out on TV and in public, it’s very different from knowing another queer person. I know a lot of people - myself included - who thought themselves straight, eventually became an overly invested ally and then suddenly realized that straight didn’t describe them at all. It’s refreshing to see a character, especially one in a lighthearted romcom, realistically struggle with their sexuality in a world that’s only ever offered straight as a default option.
Strangelove isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but it’s good, lighthearted fun with plenty of laughs, not only in its jokes but in the very relatable struggle of being queer.