It’s only been a few months since Love, Simon became the first studio movie to bring gay love to the masses and already, another queer romance has hit our screens in the form of Alex Strangelove on Netflix. However, while Love, Simon was constrained by Hollywood limitations and its need to universalize gay love for mainstream audiences, Alex Strangelove admirably dives deeper into the queer experience, exploring the struggles that many face coming to terms with their own sexuality.
On the surface, Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) seems to be perfectly content with his middle-class existence. Surrounded by supportive friends and a loving girlfriend, the protagonist of Craig Johnson’s film has nothing to worry about, yet Alex remains pent up somehow, unable to fully articulate what’s wrong with his idyllic high school relationship. It’s not until he and Claire (Madeline Weinstein) agree to consummate their love physically that anxiety begins to set in. This is exacerbated further after Alex meets a cute older guy named Elliott (Antonio Marziale) who has a crush on him, something which he’s not entirely “repulsed” by.
At one key moment during the film, Alex asks Elliott how he knew he was gay. Rather than directly answer the question with a specific memory, the out teen simply replies with a question of his own: “How did you know you were straight?” So begins Alex’s deeper analysis of why things aren’t working out with Claire in the way that they should.
While mainstream cinema as a whole is still playing catch up in regards to the representation of queer sexuality, the LGBTQ characters who we do see portrayed rarely question their orientation beyond an initial realization. Carol, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight: each of these recent heavy hitters features characters who may or may not hide their sexuality yet still ultimately understand what it is that they desire. Alex, on the other hand, remains confused for far longer than we typically see on screen, and it’s here that Johnson invites the audience to take that journey of understanding and self-acceptance alongside our protagonist.
During a recent interview with Collider, director and writer Craig Johnson revealed that aspects of Alex Strangelove are “at least partially autobiographical,” although his own coming out process took far longer than is depicted in the film. Along the way, Johnson also questioned whether he was bisexual, just like Alex does around the midway point of the story, but both eventually come to the conclusion that they’re strictly gay. Scenes where Truelove tries to maintain his erection during sex with girls should be immediately relatable to a number of gay audience members who may have also experimented with girls first and it’s commendable that Alex Strangelove explores these moments in a largely non-judgmental way.
It’s not just boys who are affected by the experiences detailed in this film, though. Too often, the girls who young gay men initially strike up a relationship with are subsequently discarded or at the very least find their role diminished if they even appear on screen. Love, Simon touched upon this briefly with Katherine Langford’s character (who became the star of the book’s sequel), but Alex Strangelove goes one better and devotes a significant subplot to Claire that runs alongside the central narrative.
Whether you found it realistic or not that Claire helped her former boyfriend connect with Elliott in the final prom scene, the heartfelt exchange leading up to that rung admirably true, revealing that Alex really does love her, but just not in the way that she needs. Rather than just portray Claire as an emotional casualty of Alex’s sexual confusion, Johnson’s script shines a light on the unique and yet still genuine kind of love shared between them both. Although Alex won’t end up with Claire in a physical sense, he still loves her on an emotional level and that’s still valid, even if the path leading up to this point is one of heartbreak on both sides.
Detractors might argue that Alex is actually leading his girlfriend on while falling in love with another person and it’s true that the audience is encouraged to identify with the title character’s often shitty and selfish behavior. However, Johnson circumvents at least some of these issues by highlighting the fact that Alex is torn between his burgeoning sexuality and the very real feelings he still holds for Claire. Unfortunately, the film fails to show Alex finally come to terms with his sexuality in the most literal sense and this is where Alex Strangelove really falls short.
For most of the film’s running time, Johnson’s focus revolves around Alex’s obsession to lose his heterosexual virginity. Through experimentation and a number of failed attempts at sex, the titular teen eventually figures out what he doesn’t like to do behind closed doors, yet Alex Strangelove fails to confirm what its hero does like beyond a high school prom kiss with the boy of his dreams.
It’s easy to understand why his character might not want to rush into anything physical, given previous anxieties about sex and his own struggles in the closet, but it’s frustrating that Johnson doesn’t complete the journey and at least hint that Alex wants something more physical from Elliott. In this sense, Alex Strangelove is just as neutered as Love, Simon, even though the film is potentially far freer to explore such avenues due to the fact that it was released via streaming.
This hesitance to depict young gay desire on screen isn’t the only shortcoming of Alex Strangelove. Just like Love, Simon, Johnson’s queer coming of age story focuses only on one specific letter in the LGBTQ spectrum, honing in yet again on the experience of a white, non-femme, American gay male. Both the marketing and even the core narrative lent themselves perfectly to an open exploration of bisexuality, yet Alex Strangelove remains a missed opportunity in this regard, only referring to bisexual behavior once halfway through with a throw-away joke about Panic! At The Disco.
alex strangelove was such a good movie and the end with all the coming out video was so cute but the bi erasure was so ugly like i was so happy to finally see a movie about someone being confused as a bisexual but he ended up being gay idk i feel like we need more +
— britt (@feeIfletcher) June 11, 2018
However, this latest addition to the growing genre of queer teen movies is still commendable for shining a spotlight on how internal struggles with one’s own sexuality can take time to manifest. Time recently claimed that stories like Love, Simon and by extension Alex Strangelove are no longer needed as kids in 2018 “already have a good shot of fitting in,” but the truth is that we’re still years away from seeing every facet of queer sexuality depicted accurately on screen.
Johnson summarizes Alex Strangelove as “Love, Simon with sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” a description that wildly over-estimates the barriers that his film actually breaks through. However, the fact remains that Alex Strangelove is still a vital addition to the LGBTQ landscape, reminding both straight and queer audiences that sexual orientation isn’t always something that can be understood straight away and often develops in stages. If we can all have a little more understanding and patience for people who are still coming to terms with their sexuality, then perhaps it will be easier for others to join the people whose coming out videos are celebrated so beautifully in the film’s final moments.