“Can someone please explain modern high school boys to me?” asks Claire (Madeline Weinstein), the long-suffering girlfriend of the questioning, titular character of Netflix’s new queer-teen flick, Alex Strangelove. “They are so oversensitive and high strung and selfish and just, like, rude. My mom made me watch this old movie the other day, Sixteen Candles, and in it the main girl is in love with a senior, Jake. And Jake is hot. Like hot hot. And he’s kind of a tool, but he’s sweet and dumb and I’m like, ‘Yes, that is what I want!’ I want a Jake!”
The scene explicitly orients Strangelove in the teen-movie landscape as a descendant of the work of John Hughes, while other films of this ilk have left this as mere subtext. After the ’80s, whenever a vaguely realistic, at least sporadically earnest teen movie has entered the world, it has inevitably invited comparison to Hughes’ films (whether Molly Ringwald’s reassessment of Hughes’ body of work will shift its status as a cultural touchstone remains to be seen). This Strangelove scene, though, exists in part to remind us that life is not a John Hughes movie, that things are increasingly complicated onscreen as our pop culture stretches to represent previously ignored identities. The scene is capped, rather sweetly, with Claire’s mother informing her that she’s way too smart for a Jake, anyway.
Certainly, no character in a Hughes movie had to go through what Claire does—her boyfriend, Alex (Daniel Doheny) is...somehow off. He’s neurotic, mostly apathetic about having sex with her, and otherwise distracted. Alex, who like Claire is a senior in high school, is on the long journey to confronting his sexuality, but instead of treating Claire like a bump in the road, Alex Strangelove gives this character dignity. The result is something like a high-school-set, 21st Century version of the groundbreaking 1982 melodrama Making Love. The girlfriends of boys who turn out to be gay, this movie seems to understand (for a while, anyway), aren’t necessary casualties in a life before it explodes into nonstop fabulousness—they’re human beings who can’t be with the one they love. It’s a specific condition with universal features that’s largely gone unexamined in culture, let alone pop culture. (Funnily enough, though, Weinstein played a similar role in last year’s Beach Rats, though that film spent much less time interrogating the emotional state of the jilted hetero.)
Alex Strangelove empathizes with Claire until it doesn’t—its maddening climax calls upon her to selflessly sacrifice happiness for the boy she can’t be with anyway. The main thing about this movie, more than any endearingly Hughes-like traits or trailblazing representations, is that it’s a bit of a mess.
Tonally, director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) is all over the place—warm and fuzzy and crass and horny. Strangelove is groaningly madcap at times to suggest Disney Channel programming with a boner. It reminded me a bit of this year’s Blockers, which talks a big game but ultimately contains much less sex than its trio of young women protagonists set out to have. Alex narrates the opening scene using an extended humans-as-wildlife metaphor (the movie essentially announces itself as tiresome immediately). He claims his friends are “definitely a bunch of horny monkeys.” I guess? They say “fuck” a lot and sometimes talk about sex, but rarely is that talk specific and even more rarely is it acted upon. It’s like Porky’s—hold the pork. The result is that it leaves you with a bunch of whys.
Comparisons between Strangelove and this year’s other high-school coming-out movie, Love, Simon, are also inevitable. The latter may have had a real square streak, barely even acknowledging the sex in sexuality, but at least it was stable, reliable, soulful—the slapdash Strangelove barely pushes the needle forward in terms of portraying young gay desire. Alex has slow, awkward sex with two girls his age, but merely kisses a boy. His object of male desire is Elliott (Antonio Marziale), a kid who’s way more comfortable being gay and attempts to show Alex the ropes. He disappears midway through the movie.
In terms of representation, Alex is more of a neutered gay caricature than most in the grand pop cultural tradition of neutered gay caricatures. His inability to achieve an erection as an 18-year-old is the topic of multiple scenes, including one in which he loses his virginity to Claire but has to imagine a shirtless Antonio in the corner of their hotel room in order to get turned on enough to perform. (To Johnson’s credit, he economically and accurately portrays something I, and I assume many other gay guys, could relate to from our days of attempting straightness.) But because the narrative sets Alex up to learn what he doesn’t like through experimentation, Alex Strangelove ultimately cops out in its failure to show its protagonist finding satisfaction. This is a narrative with blue balls. At least Love, Simon, had the good sense to not bite off more dick than it could chew.
When a boner does feature into the narrative, oddly, it’s a flashback to what appear to be Alex’s prepubescent years, when he popped one in a group shower at what I believe we’re supposed to understand is camp and, as a result, was bullied by a group of kids who spotted. This comes to Alex in an ayahuasca-trip-like identity reckoning. See, he jumps into a pool that a psychoactive frog his friend imported had leapt into moments before. The revelation is played straighter than Alex could even dream of being. In addition to the terrible opening monologue and his bond with Claire, Alex’s obsession with nature comes down to a device that...feels really stupid to type out.
The movie ends on more talking into webcam, a special episode of the web series that Alex and Claire created, in which Alex comes out to the world and is soon joined on screen by many other young people talking about their experiences coming out. As the screen crowds and the fictional character’s box grows smaller and smaller, we are to understand that these are real stories, that what we just spent 98 some odd minutes watching is but one of millions. Yeah, and it just happens to be about a non-femme, white, relatively affluent, sex-averse white male. Again. A teen movie like Alex Strangelove can start out feeling like a sign of progress and then by the end, you realize how passé it is. Life comes at you fast, but Alex Strangelove ultimately peters out.
Alex Strangelove, released June 8, is currently streaming on Netflix.