We’ve finally started to see high school movies center around LGBTQ+ characters. However, is it considered progress to now have our own fair share of lackluster boiler plate teen comedies? “Alex Strangelove” means well, as it chronicles a high school student’s love triangle between his girlfriend and a new male friend. Unfortunately, the film’s earnestness can’t make up for its clumsiness.
Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) loves animals. His nerdy predilections land him the affections of Claire (Madeline Weinstein), the pretty new girl at school. After dating throughout high school, Alex and Claire still haven’t had sex with each other. Alex’s skittishness around sex becomes exacerbated when he meets Elliott (Antonio Marizale) at a party. Elliott graduated from high school last year and lives with his best friend after his family kicked him out for being gay. As Claire pushes Alex to have sex, Alex begins to question what his feelings are for Elliott.
It’s easy to see what Alex likes in both Claire and Elliott. Both Weinstein and Marizale are engaging screen presences. As Alex mills over who he’s attracted to, Claire deals with her ailing Mom and preparing for college. Marizale makes Elliott charming and vulnerable. However, he still gets to have the upper hand as Alex plays around with his feelings. Both of these characters deserve a better character (and leading man) to surround.
Daniel Doheny approaches Alex with a lot of sincerity. He starts out as a likably awkward kid that feels like a realistic high school student. However, Doheny’s hyperactivity becomes more stilted as the film goes on. It becomes harder to reconcile with how he treats both Claire and Elliott in the name of self-discovery. However, his actions aren’t as eye-rollingly out of touch as those of his best friend Dell, played by Daniel Zolghardi. He makes Dell the ultimate cliche of “horny high school straight guy.” He constantly gives Alex advice on love life, but all his lines sound like mistranslations of past bad teen flicks.
Writer/director Craig Johnson previously made the incredibly strong and affecting “Skeleton Twins,” which deftly balanced comedy and drama. It’s shocking to see him behind “Alex Strangelove,” which feels on the nose and stilted at every turn. The production quality makes the film look like an after-school special. Its insights and characters are just as skin deep as well. Even when the film tries to rely on comedy, it falls flat, eliciting no laughs.
There’s a strange undercurrent of internalized homophobia throughout “Alex Strangelove.” Even titling this gay love story “strange” underscores how the characters see labels in the LGBTQ+ community. Our infuriating “horny best friend” Dell scoffs at the notions of labels that aren’t gay or straight when Alex comes out as bi-sexual. He insinuates the more narrowly one defines themselves the more of a joke they become. This “joke” is punctuated by making fun of a genderqueer classmate that never returns. Even in the climactic coming out scene, the movie questions Alex’s motivations. “How does one not innately know who they are attracted to? Twelve-year-olds are coming out now that it’s more acceptable.” The movie’s attitudes towards coming out are more suspect than heartwarming.
It makes matters worse that “Alex Strangelove” comes out following “Love, Simon” and “Blockers,” two exceptional comedies about teenage sexuality. Both films were empathetic portrayals of teenagers exploring their sexuality. More so, they held their central characters accountable for how they treated others in their journey to self-discovery. “Alex Strangelove” constructs a scenario where everyone helps Alex towards his dream boyfriend, regardless of how he treats them. It’s encouraging to see films about the LGBTQ+ experience get made. However, we need more films that express the diverse experiences of coming out, rather than pale imitations of the same film.