If gay teen-dom was largely left out of pop culture’s coming-of-age narrative for decades — or relegated, at best, to its shadowy fringes — it is a sad stepchild no more. From swooning arthouse Oscar bait like Call Me By Your Name to the mainstreamed sweetness of Love, Simon, wider movie audiences finally seem ready to taste the rainbow.
So maybe a film like Alex Strangelove was inevitable: a story of self-discovery so steeped in circa-2018 wokeness that its protagonist’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality actually seems at odds with the casually progressive attitudes of nearly everyone around him.
Daniel Doheny is Alex Truelove, the kind of likable Everykid who can win the senior-class presidency without being a jock or a jerk, or even being particularly interested in student government. What he cares about is keeping his grades up for college, hanging out with his goofball friends, and spinning out extended animal-kingdom metaphors for the social hierarchies of high school. (In a world of sharks and spoonbills and proboscis monkeys, he’s a self-proclaimed penguin.)
Alex is thrilled to find a fellow nature lover in the new girl, Claire (Madeline Weinstein): She lives for a good octopus pun, and she’s smart and cute, too. But their friendship-to-courtship is marred by his continuing reluctance to Go All the Way. Maybe he’s just not ready, or maybe it’s the strange feelings stirred by Elliott (Antonio Marziale), a curly-haired dreamboat with a Moonlight poster in his bedroom and a B-52s obsession he wears as easily as his out status.
Though his classmates toss around words like poly and trans with the blithe self-assurance of gender-studies majors at Bryn Mawr — and repeatedly make it clear that they’re cool with whatever way his heart and his pendulum swing — Alex balks at the idea that he might be anything less than straight. What gives them the right to ask? And if it’s true, how he could be the last to know?
Writer-director Craig Johnson (Wilson, The Skeleton Twins) paints his revelations here in a sort of sitcom-y, candy-colored glow — literally, an explosion of gummi worms is a working plot point — with occasional touches of the surreal: A cereal box morphs in front of our conflicted hero’s eyes to read “Heter-O’s”; a frog-licking experiment turns into a Hunter S. Thompson-on-the-Cartoon-Network trip.
Subtle it is not; Strangelove can feel aggressively self-aware, nouveau John Hughes with a pocket full of f-bombs and carefully worked one-liners. It’s hard too, to watch Weinstein’s Claire be put through the painful disillusionment of loving a boy who’s essentially using her as a cover for his own internal battles — a role she also played last year in the impressionistic indie drama Beach Rats, a darker and far more nuanced take on the same subject. (Though, to be fair, one probably less likely to appeal to most actual teenagers).
Still, it’s hard to fault the bigger message here: that we all deserve the right to be true to who we are, even if it takes a few hard turns — and some collateral emotional damage — to get there. If that’s what just one lonely, confused kid with a Netflix membership takes away from all this, Love‘s labors aren’t lost. B