Friday, July 20, 2018

Craig Johnson | Alex Strangelove

a different kind of bond
by Douglas Messerli

Craig Johnson (writer and director) Alex Strangelove / 2018

Having truly enjoyed Craig Johnson’s second feature film, The Skeleton Twins, of 2014, I determined yesterday to watch his most recent work, Alex Strangelove that was released by Netflix this year.
      His earlier film had been a clever family drama, starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wigg, which featured a rather unhappy housewife and her gay brother who both attempted to nurse one another, often rather clumsily, back to health, after attempting suicide; the ending of this black comedy being rather uncertain.
            Accordingly, I wasn’t quite prepared for the rom-com sitcom-like Alex Strangelove, although the title might have easily tipped me off, since the character’s real name is Alex Truelove. In a sense, it’s just a sex and drug-infused movie that, like another recent film, Love Simon, tells the tale of a handsome and quite popular young high school student who is in the process of “coming out.”
      Like that film, the central character doesn’t yet quite perceive that he’s gay. But things are so far different from the days I attended high school, that the entire decision of whether to be heterosexual, gay, pansexual, whatever, sees simply to be a matter of choice, like picking items from a Chinese menu. As the comic straight-guy in this film, Dell (Daniel Zolghadri), argues you just need to choose. Their school even seems to have an active LGBTQ community, the drama kids, who hold their own parties to which heterosexuals are also invited.
      But Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), now the popular class president and a dogged cultural conservative—he’s carefully laid out all his plans for his life, determining upon studying marine animal biology at Columbia University, getting married, and having children—and he’s already found the girl of his dreams, his long-time friend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein).
      Although Alex is clever, witty, and even enterprising—he and Claire perform together in a popular on-line school web series, featuring the sexual habits of and other eccentricities the school’s students—there’s still something slightly nerdy about him (at least in his own mind), and like most of these teenage comedy-dramas, he hangs out with a group of rather dorky friends who spend far too many of their hours describing their heterosexual conquests. Something doesn’t seem right. Why is this bright kid not moving on? And, most importantly—at least in terms of teenage hormones—why us he still a self-admitted virgin, particularly given the fact that Claire herself insists she has been desperately trying to “de-virginfy” him. He keeps putting off the event.

     Finally, embarrassed in front of his bragging bodies, he determines to do something about it, setting up a hotel room so that he and she might finally have sex.
       The plot needs time to hatch it’s secret, of course, so the sexual encounter is put off for a few weeks, while the meandering story takes him to one of the “drama kid” parties (consisting of numerous ridiculous stereotypes, including one male who obviously believes he is the permanent host of Cabaret and a hallucinogenic turtle which Dell immediately picks up and licks sending him into comic hallucinations that might have served nicely for a backstory to Todd Phillips’ The Hangover. Oddly there seems to be a lot a role playing and very little sex. Maybe that is what Johnson meant by “Strangelove.”
      Obviously, anyone with a sense of film history knows that gay director Johnson means that other “strange love,” even if there seems nothing at all strange in being gay in this progressive high school community.
      By accident, Alex stumbles into the more normative “pot” room, where a handsome young man, Elliott (Antonio Marziale) and what we used to call a “fag-hag” (a heavyset young girl who is best friend to a gay boy) are about to light up. Clearly not inexperienced with pot and quite obviously intrigued by this open gay guy, Alex joins them ending up head to head in bed with Elliott; and a day or so later, meeting up with him for a concert and slow walk, so to speak, around the park.
      Claire clearly begins to suspect something’s up, but Alex (I must admit, a bit like me at his age) is slow to wake up to the reality of his feelings. He still takes his girlfriend to the hotel, but in the midst of clumsy sex tells her there’s someone else.
       It takes a final deep dive into a suburban pool to make him come to his senses, finally admitting to himself that he is gay. (As I’ve written in My Year 2005, it took me a bad showing in an ROTC test and a few circles around my bedroom to come to that same realization).
     What’s a guy to do? After admitting to Claire that his “Truelove” has reverted to a “Strangelove—a moniker, as a gay man, I rather resent—they still agree to go with one another to the prom party. Claire, perhaps the wisest figure in this film of dumb-headed adolescents (she has also the wisest of mothers) arranges for Elliott—how she knows the address of a boy who has graduated from another school the year before is never quite explained—to also attend.
     Suddenly faced with the boy he now knows he loves in a room with his high school chums, Alex gets cold feet once again, rushing off to the bathroom and almost losing his chance for maturation and true love. Returning just in time, he kisses Elliott, expressing his sexuality for the first time in the very judgmental public of young evaluations of life.
     I presume we are meant to be touched and overjoyed in that fact. But for me, there is something sad in the final image. Let us hope that Elliott does not have to wait for the sexual consummation as long as Claire and we have. But worse, can the otherwise excellent director, Johnson, release himself from this kind of teeny-bop writing to again create a sophisticated adult comedy-drama such as his earlier works? Or have we lost him to Netflix gay “feel-good” fantasies?
     This is not seriously a gay film, but a rather silly tribute to an LBGTX nostalgia, where all is ultimately just fine as long as everybody just finds their own groove. I doubt that’s the way, even today, that most kids see those difficult years.

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