If yet another rom-com with a popular white suburban upper middle class kid questioning his sexuality is what you were looking for this Pride Month, Alex Strangelove has you covered. But even then, you should probably just go watch Love, Simon again instead. A so-so teen comedy (if you don’t like LGBTQ people—and I hope that’s a big ‘if’), it feels forced and lacks the heart, introspection, and diversity of Greg Berlanti’s superior alternative from earlier this year. By contrast, Craig Johnson’s Alex Strangelove reads like a movie for straight kids, rather than queer storytelling or even simply kind storytelling about a queer kid.
Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) is a high school senior with a pretty good life. His parents seem to care about him, he has his own wildly popular web show that combines the animal kingdom with a high school version of TMZ, and he’s dating his best friend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein). They get together when Claire’s mother is hospitalized due to an unspecified and unidentifiable illness, which sends her in and out of the hospital as the plot requires. But Claire and Alex haven’t had sex yet, and after she matter of factly calls him on it in front of her friends, he starts questioning his sexuality. Alex then meets outsider kid Elliot (Antonio Marziale) at a party, and as their friendship progresses, Alex’s feelings become harder to ignore.
Alex Strangelove is at its best during the real moments of connection between best friends/romantic couple Alex and Claire, like when they take care of each other or share hopes and successes. Even as Alex struggles with what they mean to each other, it’s clear that there’s a lot of love there. Beyond that, the confrontations Alex has with Claire and Elliot are honest and specific, which makes them ring true. While there is a standard rom-com plot, the real star here is friendship, which endures quite a bit. Unfortunately, the rest of Alex’s friends are either jerks or never particularly developed, seemingly only necessary for a weird subplot involving an illegal psychotropic frog.
Like other LGBTQ movies set in the present, Alex Strangelove struggles to justify its own existence. Even Claire asks what Alex is so confused about since her cousin came out at 12. Indeed, as the movie itself falls into the trap of making all of its LGBTQ romance chaste. Much is made of the concept that when you’re with the right person, all the “sex stuff” simply “falls into place.” The hetero sex scenes are typical teen movie stuff, and while Netflix movies aren’t rated, this would likely be PG-13.
Yet other than one brief makeout scene and a final kiss that turns into a hug, we don’t get to see the theme carried through with everything “falling into place,” for Alex with a guy.
The movie’s understanding of sexuality itself is pretty lacking, with one kid explaining what poly is (really?) as though straight people don’t participate, and Alex’s other best friend Dell (Daniel Zolghadri) has the kind of rant your racist uncle might go on at Thanksgiving dinner, all about how no one is just a boy or a girl, or straight anymore. And speaking of Dell, he’s meant to be a beloved sidekick but is saddled with most of the bad behavior, from exposing himself in an attempt to prove Alex is straight to harassing a gender nonconforming kid for no discernable reason.
In its worst moments, Alex Strangelove plays into a lot of stereotypes about gay men, like that they’re high maintenance, good dressers, effeminate. Even more dangerously, a NAMBLA joke from (who else?) Alex’s best friend Dell plays up the false conservative narrative that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. In addition to the obvious damage that misconceptions like these can do, it’s just bad storytelling. Characters come to life with specificity and depth, something that is missing every time Alex Strangelove falls back on stereotypes.
To the movie’s credit, other characters correct one or two of Dell’s missteps, and Alex genuinely considers bisexuality. There are still far too few empowering portrayals of sexuality outside the gay/straight binary.
The dialogue is a chore, even compared to other teen movies, and the teens pin-pong back and forth between being painfully realistic and so pretentious that they drink Amaro, an Italian digestive. There’s a gulf between the age of the characters and the mindset of the writing. Gen Z is notable for being the queerest yet, and the most accepting, but Alex Strangelove doesn’t fit that model.
The movie seems to be structured to make Alex’s sexuality a surprise or a reveal. But Alex Strangelove sacrifices a better connection to its lead in order to do so. It’s odd to hear him tell Claire about how he’s wrestled with years of internal dialogue that we’ve never heard, in spite of being privy to his inner thoughts on other topics. It would’ve been stronger to see him struggle with those confused parts of himself rather than hiding them until the 11th hour.
The movie’s ending leaves a lot of loose ends. After all the fraught conversations about where he and Claire will go to college, we never actually find out where he got in or chooses to go. The tension with his parents, particularly his father, remains unresolved, and there is never even a scene where he comes out to them or chooses to keep that part of his life a secret. Similarly, Claire’s mom’s mystery illness is unaddressed. Perhaps most egregiously, there’s no indication as to whether the primary relationship of the movie, the friendship between Alex and Claire, endures through college and Alex’s coming out.
Alex Strangelove shows promise when it’s earnest and specific, but unfortunately that’s not enough. Queer kids deserve movies that see them as real, full characters, with personalities and motivations of their own—not backwards stereotypes.