RELEASE DATE: June 8, 2018
DIRECTOR: Craig Johnson
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 100 minutes
Netflix is a good place for Alex Strangelove. Regardless of the notion that its young target audience is more inclined to stream than to head out to a theater, writer/director Craig Johnson is allowed to play more liberally with profanity, engage with his characters’ sex lives more frankly, and create broadly irreverent running jokes that a major studio would cull into a nicer package.
Yet the film is sweet and effusive at its core, and its occasional diversions into cruder, rougher stuff are features rather than bugs. Johnson’s characters talk and act like real people, and they take the coming-of-age mindset into a world more realized, more identifiable, and more entertaining than it would have been if genericized constraints were placed on the script.
It’s about the messiness of self-realization and pokes a bit of fun fun at the legions of teen movies where the plucky protagonists have resolved all their problems and mapped out their foreseeable futures by prom night. The delightfully named high school senior Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) prepares to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein) but finds that this impending milestone is the spark of a full-blown identity crisis.
At a party, he meets the openly gay Elliott (Antonio Marziale), a friend of a friend whose quirky charisma rocks Alex’s worldview. He’s always considered himself straight, simply because he’s never considered that he would ever be anything else, and he cares a lot for Claire and values their relationship. But he has a chemistry with Elliott that can’t be denied. He’s comfortable with himself in a way that Alex has never been.
Does this mean that he’s gay? Bisexual? Something else entirely? Alex Strangelove dives deep on ideas of individuality and everything that entails. The film points out that the media’s Gen Z stereotype is one of easy commands of one’s own labels and a dense vocabulary of possible identities. But the idea that you can come out to an accepting environment doesn’t placate the struggles you have to go through to figure out where you are to begin with.
Alex is already in the midst of adolescent awkwardness – hardly relaxed in any situation, much less this one. Johnson pulls at his protagonist’s unpolished demeanor in alternately funny and painful ways, as Doheny sells every laugh and cringe. Alex’s attempts at being serious or adult are stumbling failures, and he has a tendency to forcefully speak his mind in ways that maximum offense to the listener. (The character of Claire is usually at the receiving end of both types of fiascos, and Madeline Weinstein is particularly effective and memorable in a role that could have been obligatory.)
This raises a problem. Considering that Alex Strangelove is at its most endearing when it discusses its main character’s liminality, Johnson’s eventual shaggy-then-neat adherence to the rules of the genre that he’s otherwise been tinkering with prove bizarre. The movie wants to find a wide audience among scores of teen films and carve out an opening in the thankfully growing landscape of LGBT coming-of-age tales.
It wraps things up in the expected bows all the same. Nobody’s relationship is shaken too drastically, as even the highest dramatic stakes relieve their pressure over one or two scenes. The last scenes revert to the same over-idealized fantasies it’s otherwise averted. There’s so much more to enjoy when, as its own message conveys, it’s unafraid to explore and be itself.
As its young characters otherwise interact in fairly realistic ways, one of them winds up in a particularly strange situation that provides the movie’s best visual gag, doubling as a symbolic gesture that enforces both its humor and heart – a thesis for style and philosophy alike. It happens when Alex’s friend Dell (Daniel Zolghadri) licks a psychoactive toad. He goes on quite a trip, culminating in him eating a bulk container of especially colorful Gummi worms.
At the same party where Alex has met Elliott, he staggers into a room, sees Alex and Claire, proceeds to talk to them, and then vomits the candy onto them in a spectacularly long regurgitation. Yes, at the start of our protagonist’s journey of exploring his sexuality, when he would rather avoid the question and pretend everything’s the way it used to be for a little bit longer, Johnson makes sure that he has an entire rainbow vomited onto him. Everything was inevitable from there.