A few months ago, the YA adaptation Love, Simon became the first gay teen romantic comedy released by a major studio, a sign of broader tolerance — and a changing calculus — in terms of what stories are deemed suitable for mainstream consumption. (That rom-coms themselves are an endangered species made it even more of a rainbow unicorn.)
Now along comes Alex Strangelove, another bright comedy about a closeted high-school senior, as if to send reinforcements to the cultural front lines. While it could be argued that its reach is comparable — the film is premiering on Netflix — the stakes are much lower, given how niche-y streaming services are compared to 2,000-plus screens across the country. Love, Simon is a landmark event, whatever its merits; Alex Strangelove, though raunchier, is entirely run-of-the-mill.
Writer-director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) has made an awkward 'tweener of a film, an indie comedy that's pitched toward a much larger audience, like a gay Superbad — or The 17-Year-Old Virgin. Perhaps a studio like 20th Century Fox would be too timid to distribute a film of its sexual candor, but only just barely, and in all other ways it's deeply conventional.
Right from the start, it has a hero-narrator comparing high school to the animal kingdom, which is approximately the thousandth time that analogy has been made in films or TV shows about teenage life. That it doesn't include a record-scratch sound is a small mercy.
One insight from these zoological comparisons is that Alex Truelove (Danny Doheny) is more comfortable observing behavior than exhibiting it. He likens the school's star running back to a great white shark, a fashion changeling to a peacock spider, and his crude buddies to "horny monkeys," but considers himself a penguin — awkward but destined to mate for life. On the breeding grounds of a high-school campus, he identifies a possible life-mate in Claire (Madeline Weinstein), a fellow cephalopod enthusiast, and their status eventually shifts from friends-with-a-webseries to "in a relationship." Alex has feelings for Claire, but he can't identify them. It just seems like the thing to do.
Despite constant goading from his crude buddy Dell (Daniel Zolghadri) and a subtler form of pressure from Claire herself, Alex can't quite bring himself to close the deal, which everyone chalks up to nervousness about losing his virginity. He and Claire set a date for his deflowering, but in the interim, Alex meets a new friend, Elliott (Antonio Marziale) at a party and immediately feels more comfortable around him. Elliott's probably-not-as-straight-as-he-lets-on-dar pings from the start, but it takes time for Alex to come to identify his own place on the sexual spectrum and to consider the emotional costs.
Lady Bird took care of a similar scenario in a brief subplot, with many times the wit and heartbreak, but the film occasionally trips onto an insight into how kids like Alex can keep such a big secret from themselves. Alex convinces himself that finding the right girl will set things straight, as it were, but mostly he chooses to occupy his mind with other thoughts entirely. His friendship with Claire becomes so important to him that he's determined to deny this essential part of him just to keep her happy. That Claire's mother is sick with cancer makes sparing her feelings all the more imperative.
Perhaps fittingly, Alex Strangelove isn't as assured when it tries to get dirty. The chatter between Alex and his buddies overlaps heavily with The 40-Year-Old Virgin — his anatomical expertise is on par with Steve Carell's "bags of sand" — and Johnson rouses seemingly every tired joke that's ever been made about the purchase and use of a condom. (Doheny's extremely non-hetero reading of the line "Look at those honkers" does earn a solid laugh, however.) The film seems ill-at-ease with its own raunchiness, like Alex doing what Dell and the boys are expecting it to do, when he'd really rather stay at home and watch nature documentaries.
Alex Strangelove mostly trades in sincerity, so it's eager to skip to the parts in American Pie or Superbad where the humiliation ends and the bonding can commence. Weinstein gives the one standout performance as Claire, essentially reprising her role in the superior Beach Rats as a willing young woman who falls for a closet case; if anything, how Claire handles this complicated relationship is more dramatic and delicate than the choices Alex has to make. The more it loses the "com" part of rom-com, the closer it gets to both characters' hearts. The lesson for hero and film alike: Be yourself. The former takes to it more readily.