'Alex Strangelove': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Teen dream.
6/8/2018

A closeted high-school senior learns to stop worrying and love himself in Craig Johnson’s alternately raunchy and affecting comedy.

We like to think we’re beyond the closet. But for every LGBT child who confidently proclaims their identity before puberty hits, there are innumerable others who keep themselves sequestered, be it out of shame, survival or some terrible mixture of both. Like this year’s theatrical hit Love, Simon, writer-director Craig Johnson’s Alex Strangelove, premiering on Netflix, tells a coming-out story that’s more on the gentle side. That softheartedness, however, proves to be a fairly adequate delivery mechanism for some tough and tender observations about modern queerness.

Before the opening titles appear, we’re treated to a love story in miniature between high school senior Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), an adorably dorky zoologist in the making, and his best friend turned girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein). They met in freshman year, when they began collaborating on a blithe series of online videos that equated their school’s student body with animal kingdom analogues (library geeks, for example, exhibit lemur-like behavior), and soon enough found their feelings went beyond the platonic. Yet though they’ve swapped spit plenty, Alex has so far refused to go all the way with Claire, to the point that it’s become a running gag between the couple, as well as with Alex’s best buds Dell (Daniel Zolghadri), Blake (Nik Dodani) and Josh (Fred Hechinger).

But this is no joke. Alex is extremely closeted, though the inciting reasons why are not revealed until close to the film’s end. It's nonetheless clear that Alex, who lives in Nyack, New York, and dreams of attending Columbia University with Claire, has built a falsely jaunty world around himself. He’s long been able to defer the truth of his being by living an idealized existence akin — if in raunchier, 21st-century millennial form — to cinema-du-John-Hughes. (Sixteen Candles is referenced at one point, and not without some measure of knowing cheek.) But Alex’s well-bolstered defenses begin to crumble when he meets Elliott (Antonio Marziale), a one-year-older gay guy on the incline of the “It gets better” slope. New feelings come to the fore and complications of all kinds ensue.

There’s plenty here that’s been done before, chiefly the sarcasm-prone high school dynamics, though it's arguable whether these aspects are inherent to Alex’s kookily cloistered fantasy life or illustrative of a certain derivativeness on the writer-director's part. Probably more the former than the latter: Johnson often appears to be setting up cliché scenarios only to tweak or knock them down, as in a lengthy set piece at a hotel in which Alex tries and fails to have sex with Claire. The outcome is clear from the get-go, but how the film gets there is believably fraught and much more risqué, verbally and visually, than a story of this sort typically dares. 

This aura of embarrassment could be partly attributed to producer Ben Stiller, whose influence is evident in the more vulgar/broadly farcical scenes, such as an interlude involving an exotic toad whose skin, when licked, acts as a hallucinogen. The unlucky tonguer witnesses everything from a yodeling garden hose (a genuinely hilarious sight-gag) to a temptingly talkative jar of Gummi Worms, which are soon after vomited up in a puke-tastic rainbow. But Alex Strangelove is much more affecting whenever Johnson steps out of genre comfort zones, as when Alex goes with Elliott to a Brooklyn concert and it’s as if he leaves the movie world entirely behind.

There’s a tossed-off moment in this section that’s truly, heartbreakingly beautiful, as Alex catches sight of a slightly older gay couple who, to his eyes, look eerily like himself and Elliott, though entirely content and comfortable in their own skins. In a fleeting image, Johnson captures what it’s like to be on a sexual-emotional cusp, projecting your subconscious hopes and desires onto those around you. Whenever Alex Strangelove treads into these choppy waters (which is often enough), it feels radical, to the point that the finale’s inclusion of actual YouTube coming-out videos comes off as an honestly earned and inspirational gesture.

Production companies: Mighty Engine, Red Hour Films, STX Entertainment
Cast: Daniel Doheny, Madeline Weinstein, Antonio Marziale, Daniel Zolghadri, Annie Q., Nik Dodani, Fred Hechinger, Kathryn Erbe, Isabella Amara, Sophie Faulkenberry
Director-writer: Craig Johnson
Producers: Ben Stiller, Nicholas Weinstock, Jared Ian Goldman
Director of photography: Hillary Spera
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Costume designer: David Robinson
Music: Nathan Larson
Music supervisors: Maggie Phillips, Christine Greene Roe
Casting: Richard Hicks, David Rubin

99 minutes