Although comparisons to the similarly queer themed teenage rom-com Love, Simon from earlier this year are inevitable, writer-director Craig Johnson’s raunchier Netflix original film Alex Strangelove has more in common with the American Pie franchise than John Hughes, and that shift from gentility to risqué behaviour works greatly in its favour. Unafraid of depicting teenagers as both confused people with rampaging hormonal urges, the latest film from Johnson (The Skeleton Twins, Wilson) balances ribald gags with a delicately constructed depiction of figuring out one’s sexuality.
Unfortunately named high schooler Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) is living what he thinks is his best life. He’s the senior class president. His doofus, horny friends are all extremely loyal to him. His girlfriend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein), is lovingly devoted to his every pursuit, sharing his openly dorky and uncool love for the animal kingdom. Everything seems fine until sexual tenson develops between Alex and Claire, spurred on by his skittish attitude towards having intercourse with his girlfriend. Alex tries forcing himself into having sex with Claire, but nothing seems to work. Gradually, through interactions with Elliot (Antonio Marziale), a kindhearted gay teen who recently graduated, Alex begins to develop a new attraction and question his sexuality in the process.
The most revolutionary thing about Johnson’s work is that Alex Strangelove never leaps to the conclusion that the main character might actually be gay. Instead, Johnson offers a more nuanced and enriching look at how peer pressure can shape, twist, and confuse someone’s developing sense of sexuality, and how the formation of one’s identity is a process and a journey instead of a cut and dry decision. There’s a chance that Alex could be straight, and that he’s just terrified of sex. He could be asexual. His bond with Claire is so strong, but his sexual attraction to Elliot is so overwhelming that he might be bisexual. Trying to commit fully to hetero or homosexual norms can be draining and confusing at times, especially for teens who might not even fully understand the nature of sex. Alex Strangelove is a film about the sometimes fraught process of sexual experimentation and discovery, and it’s handled with love and care among the jokes about penis size, horribly worded dirty talk, and a running gag involving a psychotropic tree frog.
Johnson, instead of wanting to take the Hughes’ “teens are hipper than thou” approach, turns things up a few notches to play up the more outlandish aspects of the script’s humour. Not all of it works, and a subplot involving Alex’s super-hetro best friend (Daniel Zolghadri, nicely channelling the earlier works of Corey Feldman) wrestling with a crush on Claire’s best friend (Annie Q.) is somewhat distracting, but there are some inspired set pieces and visual gags (including a memorable drug induced hallucination involving a talking garden hose). Instead of going for a chaste PG-13 depiction of sexuality, Johnson goes for the Hard-R at every turn, result in a film where teens talk like real teenagers and the jokes reflect a more puerile sensibility. If Love, Simon opened the door for mainstream queer teen romances, Alex Strangelove follows in nicely behind it as the next logical step in the commoditization and normalization of queer romance narratives in mainstream cinema. Sure, there are problematic elements to that, but there’s room enough at the table for both movies.
And while the relationship between Alex and Elliot is nicely played as a tenuous sort of meet-cute, it’s the chemistry between the equally great Doheny and Weinstein that provides Johnson’s film with a strongly relatable centre. We know that the relationship between Alex and Claire is doomed, but they so clearly enjoy each other’s nerdy company that we don’t want either of them to be hurt. Neither character is a bad person or worthy of being vilainized for the choices they make, so the constant push and pull in their attraction and friendship feels well realized by Johnson and well performed by the pair of rising stars tasked with playing them.
But for all of the sexual progressiveness and nuance on display, Alex Strangelove still functions primarily as a lightweight, gross out comedy for teens. Hopefully, it can lead to greater conversations about healthy sexuality and the dangers of peer pressure pushing notions of normativity onto kids who are still trying to figure things out for themselves, but even if no one takes anything deeper away from this, it’s still a fun and likable little movie.
Alex Strangelove debuts on Netflix on Friday, June 8, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Alex Strangelove: