While its perspective on teenage sexuality is smart and authentic, its view of sexual orientation and gender identity are embarrassingly narrow.
Teen romantic comedies appear to be making a bit of a comeback thanks to newer distribution models and streaming platforms. Netflix, in particular, has unleashed a bunch of successful, sugary films on their subscribers, and some, like The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, have entered public consciousness just as much as theatrical hits. But for every entertaining entry, there are five that play like failed Freeform television pilots. This makes writer-director Craig Johnson’s Alex Strangelove a bit of a marvel. Though it’s lightweight and a bit problematic, it’s also entertaining, funny and surprisingly frank about teenage sexuality.
Like last year’s similar, superior Love, Simon, Alex Strangelove owes a lot to John Hughes. Alex Strangelove follows a Hughes-like group of teenage misfits, primarily the quirky, animal-obsessed Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), his girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein) and gay college freshman Elliot (Antonio Marziale). Alex and Claire have yet to consummate their relationship and make plans to do so at a local hotel, but right around the appointed time, he meets the cute, charming Elliot at a party. Alex tries to resist his attraction to Elliot, but several failed attempts at heterosexual romance make it clear that he isn’t straight.
Johnson, channeling Mean Girls, inserts frequent references to the animal kingdom to suggest the wildness of teenage relationships, which is far too on-the-nose. But when it comes to depicting the actual relationships, between Alex and Claire, Alex and Elliot and the various entanglements of their friends, Johnson shows a knack for capturing the mix of humor, obsession, terror and devastation that comes along with teen sexuality.
Like any good teen movie, Stangelove is chock-full of over-the-top gags, most of which are surprisingly effective (a sequence involving a hallucinogenic frog, gummy worms and projectile vomiting is laugh-out-loud funny). Less consistent are the characters’ frequent discussions regarding sexual orientation, which show an admirable open-mindedness towards white gay men but come off less accepting of other LGBT+ orientations. While not phobic, the casual dismissal of others is completely at odds with the film’s intentions. Also, there is room for diversity in the main roles, yet Strangelove disappointingly relegates minorities to sidekick parts.
The performers do an excellent job, particularly Doheny and Weinstein (no relation to Harvey). Weinstein’s Claire ends up being the heart of the film as she is forced to deal with her own feelings of betrayal while also shepherding the nervous Alex out of the closet. A subplot involving her sick mother feels shoehorned in, but her mother is played by the always-wonderful Kathryn Erbe (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), which makes it forgivable.
Perhaps the heaviest link to Hughes’ ‘80s hits is the complete lack of parental supervision these kids have. Strangelove’s characters, like Hughes’, appear to live in an alternate universe where parents don’t care if their teenaged children spend the night at hotels, go to frat parties or take detours into the big city. The kids in Alex Strangelove don’t even bother coming up with excuses. This, of course, allows the hijinks to unfold, but it requires a heavy suspension of disbelief.
While it doesn’t reach the same heights as recent theatrical releases like Love, Simon, Kelly Fremon Craig’s Edge of Seventeen or Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Alex Strangelove is charming and, most importantly, very funny. However, while its perspective on teenage sexuality is smart and authentic, its view of sexual orientation and gender identity are embarrassingly narrow.