Hard on the heels of the successful theatrical release of Love, Simon, Netflix’s own gay romcom Alex Strangelove hit screens this week. This film tells the story of Alex Truelove, a high school senior and clutsy nice-guy, as he navigates some big questions about his sexuality. The storyline is promising but, sadly, the delivery is as confused as the lead character — and this one misses its mark.
Directed By: Craig Johnson
Written By: Craig Johnson
Starring: Daniel Doheny, Madeleine Weinstein, and Antonio Marziale
Producers: Jared Goldman, Ben Stiller, Nicholas Weinstock
Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) seems to have everything sorted out. He’s the class president who’s easily acing high school and, while he’s not a “cool kid,” he has a close group of friends and steady girlfriend Claire (Madeleine Weinstein). The couple is contemplating taking their relationship to the next level and Claire finds that Alex is curiously non-committal. Alex himself is surprised to find he feels hesitant. At the same time Alex meets Elliot who is older, openly gay and obviously interested in him.
Described by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) the Writer/Director as a “very personal project,” Alex Strangelove debuted in April 2018 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. When asked if the movie is autobiographical, Johnson told Entertainment Weekly; “I describe Alex as the sexual confusion of my teens and my 20s crammed into one kid’s senior year of high school.”
Pick a Style
Writer/Director Craig Johnson chooses to tell his story with a patchwork of delivery styles. The movie kicks off with the tired ‘high school is like a zoo’ metaphor complete with file footage and documentary voiceover. And, as a result, we have a pretty clear view of how the film going to turn out before the opening credits roll from a stylistic perspective (strangely this animal kingdom/high school comparison fails to play out in the actual plotline). Alex’s school seems remarkably open-minded and diverse and there is very little to suggest anyone would bat an eyelid at a kid coming out of the closet.
The interaction between Alex and his group of “madcap” friends (sigh) is very sweary. The language is explicit and the talk is almost exclusively about sex. While this approach plays to its intended audience of teenagers, it needs to be funny to avoid being tiresome. It seems like an attempt to meld a raunchy teen comedy with a love story — it never quite fits.
The film is dotted with animations used to illustrate a psychedelic trip and Alex’s anxiety-induced hallucinations. One of them is actually pretty funny but largely, this addition seems out-of-place in a movie aimed at older teens.
Some Shining Moments
While Alex Strangelove is mostly clunky there are moments that suggest the movie it could have been. A night out in a club and a subsequent meal in a restaurant are romantic and genuinely sweet. The highlights of this movie have one thing in common and that’s the appearance of Antonio Marziale as Elliot. Elliot is self-assured and comfortable with his sexuality providing a mentor-like support for Alex without judgement. Unfortunately Elliot all but disappears for most of mid-section of the action, and the film suffers for it.
The girlfriend’s story is told with care and Claire’s character is sensitively portrayed. A poignant subplot about Claire and her mother has some really nice moments but is left to hang in the air without any link to the rest of the story.
Faces to Watch Out For
Madeleine Weinstein’s performance is solid as Alex’s long-term girlfriend. She has a number of TV credits to her name and Alex Strangelove is her second feature film. I think it’s likely we will start to see more of her on the big screen. Oddly, her most recent performance in Beach Rats (2017) saw her play a character in a very similar predicament to that of Claire.
Undoubtedly the standout is Marziale as Elliot whose performance is gentle and genuine. Until now he has worked in TV, but he makes a respectable film debut here. It’s a shame he didn’t get more screen time — although we could have done without his lip-syncing to the B52’s.
Daniel Doheny as Alex on the other hand fell into the ‘nothing to write home about‘ category. He manages to give us plenty of confused and bumbling moments but not a lot of emotional depth nor anything all that humorous. Admittedly though, he has some poor jokes to deliver (in one particularly awkward scene he attempts to rehearse an encounter with his girlfriend on a stuffed proboscis monkey). A tighter script would have been a great addition to it all.
Lack of Tension
With this subject matter there was a golden an opportunity to explore Alex’s inner battle when confronting his sexuality. His friends are very accepting and his family kind and supportive, so we are given few clues as to the root of his fears. Later a flashback scene provides some insight but the movie doesn’t circle back to reveal if or how he has resolved his personal demons.
Ultimately Doesn’t Deliver Anything New
For a film that rated MA because of language and sexual content, the only gay adult moment is a kiss. Packing the film with explicit talk and a couple of fumbling encounters with girls are elements we’ve seen way too often, and it never approaches the struggles or complexities of discovering one’s sexuality. In the end, it doesn’t deliver anything truly progressive in terms of gay film for its intended audience, let alone older age groups.
Admittedly, I am not the target audience for this film and, despite the film’s problems, I suspect it will land as an OK movie with those it’s intended for. While potty-mouthed and deserving of the rating, there is nothing in the film that is disrespectful and no violence or disturbing content. The relationships are sincere and the teenage characters perceptive and caring.
It includes some nicely played scenes and good performances, but less than a handful of laughs — for me that’s not enough to put the com in romcom.
Overall, Alex Strangelove is a watchable film with some charm and likeable characters but misses a trick when it comes to breaking new ground in this genre.
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