While Love, Simon has the spotlight this year as the gay teen coming-of-age movie, don’t let Alex Strangelove slip by under the radar. Out now on Netflix, it’s another gay tale that’s worthy of your attention.
From writer/director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins, Wilson), the story follows Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), a high schooler who has his life plan all figured out. Class president, dating his friend-turned-girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein), his only hang-up is he hasn’t had sex with her yet, which is a simple problem to solve — or one would think. But what Alex discovers is that there’s more beneath the surface of his own desires; it’s just his perfectionist type-A personality won’t let him see it.
The movie begins cleverly comparing high school to that of a wildlife documentary, which stems from Alex’s obsession with anything nature or animals, specifically cephalopods. It’s Claire’s shared interest in this that draws her to him, not to mention their affinity for film production. Alex is also surrounded by his boys-will-be-boys trio of friends who only have sex on their minds. Alex at one point even says to them, “Can’t we get past this horny teenage boy archetype?”
The joy of this movie is that the screenplay from Craig Johnson very much tries to do just that. The high school guy who’s trying to his lose virginity so desperately turns out to not even be attracted to girls. It’s a fun play on the genre, but the mash-up of a sweet, tender coming-out story and your typical raunchy teen comedy — the movie would’ve earned itself an R-rating had it hit theaters — sometimes doesn’t click. This is especially true when the story focuses on the escapades of side character Dell (Daniel Zolghardi), which includes a drug-induced head trip gone wrong brought on by licking a rare specimen of frog purchased from the internet, no less.
When things really start firing on all cylinders is the introduction of Alex’s real love interest, Elliot (Antonio Marziale from YouTube’s The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo), which throws everything out of whack for our hero. The chemistry between them is adorable and undeniable from the first scene together, and their time together brings us a lip sync of a B-52s song, a moment very reminiscent of Bill Hader’s stand-out scene in The Skeleton Twins.
What sets Alex’s journey apart from Simon’s in Love, Simon is that the latter knows who he is, or at least he knows who he’s attracted to; Alex hasn’t gotten to that point yet. That’s what is so important about LGBTQ storytelling. There are innumerable steps in the process of coming-out or self-realization of your sexuality alone where even two movies about a white gay man in high school end up addressing different issues. Alex’s acceptance of himself is so buried and hidden deep within himself that he can’t see his own internalized shame and homophobia preventing him from being who he really is.
It all sounds deep and heavy, but it’s largely handled with grace thanks to the direction from Johnson. That’s about 70 percent of the movie, though. There’s another 30 percent that is not as interesting or insightful when the scenes aren’t focusing on Alex, Elliot or Claire. And that might be a case of just trying to have it all with broad comedy when keeping it specific would’ve made for a stronger movie. But even when the side plots meander, it does loop back around to characters having interesting conversations about sexuality, being true to who you are and not resigning yourself to pre-determined roles.
The range of accepting voices Alex experiences also differs from Simon. Claire, once receiving the news, asks the problematic question people mostly get when coming out: “Are you sure it’s not just a phase?” And Alex asks himself that, too, as he considers he might be bisexual. And newcomer Daniel Doheny in the role does a great job of allowing us into his personal struggle as he navigates these questions. It’s an epiphany Alex has drunk and having fallen into a swimming pool, a flashback to elementary school being called a “faggot” — a memory to which many gay men can relate — that allows Alex to finally admit to Claire what’s really going on inside him.
The movie ends on Alex and Claire, now bonded in the always powerful straight female-gay male friendship, telling their somewhat shared coming-out story to the internet. This morphs into a montage of real life coming-out videos shared on YouTube, which drives home the message that nobody’s journey of self-realization and acceptance is the same.
Between the partying hijinks, the broad teenage raunchy humor and disposable sidekicks, there’s a heart and meaningful purpose to Alex Strangelove that is commendable. It might not be the transcendent Love, Simon, but I’m already doing a disservice by even comparing the two. They can both exist — and they do. And this one is waiting for you to check out on Netflix right now.