When I tell you that this film — which starts out seeming like your run-of-the-mill teen rom-com — is different precisely because it’s gay, you shouldn’t read that as a bad thing.
Opening with nature documentary style images and comparing high school students to wild animals ー a deliberate nod to Mean Girls, perhaps? ー the explicit gayness of Alex Strangelove inches its way into the film slowly. We follow the story of the title character Alex, played by Daniel Doheney, and his long time best friend to recently turned girlfriend Claire, played by Madeline Weinstein (no relation). Both vloggers and fancy dress aficionados, they are in senior year (that’s American for Year 13) and about to lose their virginity to one another. While Alex has no doubt he’s attracted to Claire, his feelings get more complicated when he meets the openly gay Elliot at a party. I would like to point out here that, while we may be led to laugh at the party goers weird antics ー at one point they play ‘soundball’, a drama game where you pass movements and noises across a circle ー in my experience, theatre kids really do throw the best parties…but I digress.
Biggest Gay Mood: dramatically falling into a swimming pool because you’re Having A Moment
Elliot is portrayed stunningly by Antonio Marziole, and while I don’t intend to shoehorn his talent, I do believe that being a gay actor clearly enhances Marziole’s performance. As Elliot, he is convincingly seductive; playful but not manipulative. Plus, while obviously attracted to Alex, he never suffocates or pressures him. This is perhaps because the actor and the character both understand what it’s like to be a boy coming to terms with his sexuality. He displays emotional sensitivity when talking about the rift between himself and his dad caused by his coming out. And yet, Elliot never hides the ‘gayest’ parts of who he is from anyone. From dancing wildly at a crowded gig, to lip-syncing The B52s in a pink wig and a Keith Haring T-shirt, Marziole is authentically and unashamedly Elliot. Authentically and unashamedly queer. A clear standout amongst a talented cast, he provides an excellent case study in favour of gay actors for gay roles.
While Alex Strangelove pleased queer audiences by doing just that — hiring gay actors (well, one gay actor at least) to tell gay stories — one common criticism stands in its treatment of bisexuality. Alex accepts himself as bi before he ultimately accepts himself as gay, and while this does reflect the journey of many gay teens, it also can be seen to trivialise bisexuality as ‘just a step on the ladder’ towards full-blown gayness. This, it goes without saying, is a harmful message to promote to young audiences, delegitimising the authentic experiences of bisexual people and, in turn, anyone who doesn’t identify within the binary for sexual orientation.
Britney Line Time: “It might seem like a crush, but it doesn’t mean that I’m serious”
From a purely personal perspective, I didn’t mind this part of the story. I like that Alex uses bi as part of his journey of discovering his identity and admitting it to himself, because that reflects my own experience. I relate to the story of idolising the pretty girls at school and assuming I was attracted to them (who knows, maybe I was in some way) because society told me that’s what I should be doing, when in reality I probably just wanted to be like them. Then again, it is important for me to acknowledge my privilege as a cis, white and (pretty much) gay man, and the belief that the film conveys a frivolous attitude towards bisexuality is perfectly valid. I can’t ignore the potentially damning impact of this.
Despite the film’s title, for me at least this film is as much about Claire’s journey as it is about Alex’s. For a start, she gave me the most relatable moment when she ran in and cried over a boy on her mum’s knee. Although, like all of us, she is vulnerable at times, she doesn’t stick around to let men hurt her. And she is neither an accessory nor a plot device.
Top tip: bring the tissues for the prom scene, the film’s emotional climax
I’ve watched this film 4 times. Which tells me that I might have some kind of affinity for it. Writing this, I found it difficult to find bits to criticise, because I like to remember the good bits. I’m a big fan of a rom-com, and if it makes me cry I’m going to love it even more. Every time I’ve watched Alex Strangelove I have been literally shaking because I was sobbing so much. This was thanks to the climax of Claire’s emotional development arc. And it’s not even really that sad! I’m not even sure if it’s that poignant or relevant for my life, but something about her character ー and, I’m sure, Weinstein’s portrayal (again, no relation) ー connected to me on a deep emotional level.
Still, it would be remiss of me to not talk about some parts of the film I enjoyed less. Alex’s interactions with his stereotypically laddish (but not cool) guy friends are clumsy, cringy and at times problematic. These friends get even worse when he’s not there, playing into tired and unnecessary teen comedy tropes. On this, watch out for the primary school fire T-shirt pattern (you know the one) turned into a backwards cap. Yikes.
At one point in the film, a straight character asks someone who’s just come out to them, “Don’t people know who they’re attracted to? Is it different when you’re gay?” And to me this is the crux of the film. It is different when you’re gay, because your rights to exist, express, and love are debated. Even with widening queer representation, our identities are othered, assumed to be an anomaly, ‘straight until proven gay’. Reflecting this, Alex Strangelove doesn’t shy away from being different because it’s gay. Even Claire’s story and character development are impacted by the queerness she encounters. She grows because of it. There are scenes in this film where queerness makes it shine, and these will be the ones you remember. And when the film gets there, it is emotionally, heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
Header image via Collider