First there was the safe, saccharine, and genuinely charming Love, Simon. Now comes Simon’s edgier cousin, Alex Strangelove. The new Netflix movie about a high school student questioning his sexuality is fun and raw, but all at once it holds back and tries too hard, and that’s to its detriment.
Director Craig Johnson set out to make a semi-autobiographical story, reflecting on his own life and the messy, complicted relationships between people.
Alex Strangelove is about a high school senior, Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), who has it all. He’s class president, he has a wonderful girlfriend (Claire, played by Madeline Weinstein), and he’s ready to have sex. Or so he thinks.
When he meets Elliott (Antonio Marizale), an out gay teen, Alex suddenly has to confront who he might be.
A different high school experience
Just as the diluted nature of Love, Simon may have felt somewhat inauthentic through its Hollywood lens, so too does Alex Strangelove’s edge at times. Granted, this is also because of everyone’s wildly different experiences in high school.
Sex is almost as big a character as our three leads in the film.
The society Alex navigates consists of sexually active friends or those that judge him for his lack of it. This may feel relatable to some viewers, and entirely foreign to others. The obsessive nature may not be the most progressive way to approach sex — especially in a country that gives consensual sex a higher movie rating than explicit violence — but it does try its hand at showing the spectrum of mindsets.
When Alex and Claire want to have sex for the first time, they run into a problem. Where to do it with total privacy? They get a friend’s older sister to book them a hotel room as neither are 18 yet.
This totally made-up Hollywood scenario in my head is actually pulled straight out of Johnson’s real life. That’s half the fun of the movie — seeing just how chaotic, sloppy, and understandably self-centered teens can be, while still evoking empathy for them.
Sweet, sweet chemistry
The sweet spot of the film is its cast, all delivering their performances with 110% charisma and talent.
Its script borders on feeling authentic and a manufactured being spit out of Hollywood. The teens curse and speak caustically and without thinking and that is all very real. But its quippiness pushes the envelope of trying too hard and not every line delivers with the same genuine landing.
All three leads’ performances, however, are a sight to behold. Each one is endlessly watchable and slip so easily into their characters and this story.
Doheny and Marizale, specifically, have chemistry that is off the charts. Every time they share the screen, a palpable feeling of tension and desire and those butterflies in your stomach arrive. The movie is at its best when it explores Alex and Elliott’s relationship and it evokes the most outward emotions.
Johnson also does something admirable, bold, and refreshing with Alex. He makes him a protagonist that is not always easy to root for.
Alex makes some terrible decisions in the film, and says things that will make you clench your fists and gasps. Johnson never uses Alex’s struggle with his sexuality as an excuse for his mistakes. When he hurts people, it’s entirely on Alex being an imperfect person.
The process of coming out and figuring out one’s identity is treated with empathy, but Johnson doesn’t fall into the trap of making Alex perfect because it might be viewed that coming out is enough of a struggle and journey for a character. Instead, Alex has multitudes and flaws and ambitions beyond his sexuality.
Because the movie is semi-autobiographical, it’s somewhat limited in what it can do with its story.
Alex at first ponders the idea that he could be bisexual, but this is quickly dismissed, both by characters and the move itself. At one point I even wonderered whether Alex would determine he falls somewhere on the asexual spectrum, as an oft-overlooked identity in media.
Gay white men are the most represented in movies and there was an opportunity here to broaden the visibility of other identities.
It becomes clearer with a reveal in the third act. This reveal, though, comes seemingly out of nowhere and a little too late. It acts something like an anvil and brings a weight suddenly down on things that was never hinted at before.
There are many real moments throughout Alex’s journey — coming out can absolutely be this confusing and scary, something you oppress and hide — but its constraining too, and not always accessible.
As wildly manufactured as the movie gets at times (there’s a ridiculous bit with a hallucinogenic frog and sour gummy worms), it’s a fun reminder that there are so many different experiences out there, each one as real as the last. It may not have been my experience, but it will be other people’s, and it’s enjoyable to the end, even with its missteps.
Alex’s story is a good one to tell and watch, and hopefully it helps kick open the door in Hollywood to more diverse and inclusive narratives.
Alex Strangelove arrives on Netflix tomorrow, 8 June.