And now, Alex Strangelove

It appears I have become the guy who only writes critiques of gay white cis films.

Craig Johnson’s Alex Strangelove is the third gay film to come out this year, and after Call Me by Your Name and Love, Simon, I’m surprised I haven’t read more reviews lamenting how three is too many gay films in 2018.

Premised on a noticably cisgender and noticably white protagonist, Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), Netflix’s new teenage high-school self-discovery film got applause for not being about straight people. Others understandably criticized the film for leading on audiences to believe that Alex might be bi before declaring at the end that Alex is just gay; many have pointed out how the film seems to have confused pansexuality with polygamy.

(For those, like me, who need to Google to make sure they’ve got it right, pansexuality refers to sexual/romantic attraction without caring about their sexual and gender identities, which polygamy is having sex and relationships with more than one person at the same time. Bisexuality is being attracted to both male/man and female/woman identities, but still caring about their sexual/gender expression. While bisexuality and pansexuality aren’t the same thing, they’re a lot closer to each other as concepts than they are to polygamy.)

Technically, writer and director Johnson has done a good job with this film: the lighting and sound are great, and my cringing was never due to poor acting but always the social awkwardness depicted. Theatrically, things could have been a lot better.

My issues are primarily representational rather than artistic. And there are plenty of things wrong with the way Alex Stranglove portrays the lives it’s trying to celebrate.

Hurray for talking about sex, but like, not everything is about your dick

I asked the same question after seeing Love, Simon: what is going on in American high schools? The blogs, the gossip, the chatting — and the obsession over the penis. Gods, the obsession over the penis.

Alex Strangelove explores sexuality through sex, either real or fantasized — an approach that Love, Simon noticably eschewed. Alex and friends obsess over sex and getting it on; most of Alex’s personal struggles in the early part of the film have to do with the fact that he’s still a virgin.

I’m not saying that having sex isn’t a big deal, but I’m tired of this social obsession over virginity and sexual purity. We’ve known for ages how terrible it is that media messages push men to have sex with multiple women and celebrate them as macho-butch successes, while women are ridiculed and ostracized if they do the same with men. Alex Strangelove doesn’t do anything to counter that, but instead plays on those very stereotypes; the film shows with his girlfriend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein) talking about how they haven’t had sex — and Alex getting embarassed about it. Then, when Alex finally does decide to have sex, best friend Dell (Daniel Zolghari) goes “Congradulations, Truelove, you will be a man soon.”

Other people having sex has nothing to do with you unless you’re one of the people involved.

Get over it, people. Other people having sex has nothing to do with you unless you’re one of the people involved. And not having sex doesn’t make you a lesser man, because, like, life isn’t about sex. While other critics (hi Vulture) see this as “actual attempted approximations of what it’s like to be a 17-year-old virgin,” shouldn’t films also try to portray role models of behaviour for us to learn from?

Also, while others have already pointed this out, I think it’s important enough that I’m going to mention it as well: it’s problematic that Alex Strangelove has two scenes of Alex and a woman having (or attempting to have) sex, but absolutely none with Alex and a guy. If we still portray gay sex differently from heterosexual sex, then this doesn’t count as an LGBTQ representation-liberation-inclusion film.

“Isn’t anybody just plain straight anymore?”

STRANGELOVE-Dell
Dell (Daniel Zolghadri) in Alex Strangelove.

The immortalizable line from Dell sounded like it was quoting an old guy who’s upset with how the world has changed, but I also don’t want to dismiss the fact that all these words are difficult to keep track of. A world where everybody is either a man or a woman and is attracted to the other is really simple, whereas the glitter of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, queers, trans, demis, aces, non-identifying, gender-fluid can make anyone’s head spin.

Get over it. Humans are complex, and none of us fit easily into the boxes that we’re all collectively prescribing to one another. You can’t force someone else to change who they are simply because it make it easier for you to organize your life.

Go learn about what demisexuality means if you don’t know. Google exists. Or read more of me and I’ll eventually get around to talking about some stuff.

Humans are complex, and none of us fit easily into the boxes that we’re all collectively prescribing to one another. You can’t force someone else to change who they are simply because it make it easier for you to organize your life.

Part of me wonders if this has something to do with how Alex Strangelove languished in so-called development hell for ten years — after all, ten years ago was when The West Wing was talking about the political struggles of gay marriage and perceptively predicted the battle could be won in ten years. If Alex Strangelove had been released in 2005, perhaps I would have found it canonical with history, if unfortunate; but as it stands in 2018, this line makes me think the film is hopelessly outdated.

Sexual orientation isn’t like choosing cereal

STRANGELOVE-cereals
“Heter O’s,” “Bi-Crunchies” or “Gay-Flakes”? Screenshot of film from Netflix.

Alex Strangelove begins soppingly and cringeworthy enough, but my enjoyment of the film crashed at the scene where Alex questions his sexual identity at breakfast. When the cereal brands began to warp into “Heter O’s” and “Gay Flakes,” I thought we were witnessing Alex experience a psychedelic episode (not a great association with LGBTQ, as history demonstrates). It soon becomes clear that this scene is meant to serve as a metaphor for Alex’s struggles with himself: What kind of person should he be? (Why anyone would enjoy highly processed tori cereals for breakfast is beyond me.)

This is a terrible metaphor. Discovering your sexual identity isn’t like choosing a cereal, as least not so far as mine or many others’ experiences go; you don’t just go to a shelf of sexual orientations and say “oooh, I like this.”

In some ways, this is a lighthearted and comedic approach to portraying a queer teen’s struggle with sexuality. But I don’t think we’re at a stage in society yet when queer individiuals are included enough for us to treat coming out and questioning as a lighthearted comedy experience. Nor, really, is the conflict with a queer individual’s relationship with themselves, but rather it’s their relationship with society — and unless Kellogg’s launches a homonormative messaging campaign, cereals are not the best metaphor for this internalized conflict.

Love, Simon did a much better job of recognizing and demonstrating the fear and anxiety that strikes many queer teens when they realize the potential social consequences of coming out. I recognize Strangelove is partly based on Johnson’s own experiences as a gay man, and I want to respect that — but I can see this scene being used as an example of sexual orientation being a conscious choice, and I’m not happy to acclaim a film that can be so easily appropriated by anti-LGBT campaigners for their agenda.

Sophie: thanks for the representation, but an old trope isn’t better than newer ones

STRANGELOVE-SophieHicks.png
Sophie Hicks (Annie Q.) in Alex Strangelove. Screenshot of film from Netflix.

I was delighted when Sophie Hicks (Annie Q.) appeared in Alex Strangelove because my first thought was “Yes! Finally, some Asian American representation in a gay film!” (Hey Simon, we talked about that.)

Sophie’s brilliant. I was ready to applaud the film for excellent representation of Asian Americans that doesn’t simply draw on age-old Orientalist stereotypes. Sophie’s not meek, humble or subservient, but smart, sassy and confident. She’s not the Asian American girl-nerd who’s super good at maths and can’t seem to do anything else, nor is she the one who’s getting it on with everyone. Oh yeah.

Then Sophie turned out to be another (but less aggressive) incarnation of the dragon lady, and my heart just sank. With Sophie Hicks, Craig Johnson avoided all the common Asian American tropes today by drawing upon one in the further past. At first, Sophie just toys around with Dell’s affections, which is honestly something that I won’t really judge her for (this is high school and apparently we’re going for realism) — but then she basically manipulates Dell, fully knowing his feelings for her, and gets him to give up Alex’s whereabouts at the frat party. That she kept eleven-year-old Dell’s shirtless photos isn’t quite redeeming enough, particularly since she shared them with all the other girls in sixth grade.

It’s a shame, really, that we didn’t see Sophie developed as a character. Johnson could have gone so many directions with Sophie Hick’s backstory, exploring what it’s like to be Asian American in the U.S. (a story that’s still under-told in popular media) or even just including more of that sass. Instead, she mainly exists as the manipulative sidekick that helps her best friend, Claire, after she and Alex break up.

Claire, the real true love

STRANGELOVE-Claire
Claire (Madeline Weinstein), Alex’s girlfriend. Screenshot of film from Netflix.

One thing I do applaud (along with many other people) is Johnson’s treatment of Claire, Alex’s girlfriend. The film takes a dive into exploring how she’s affected by her boyfriend Alex — a perspective that I didn’t notice had been missing in Love, Simon. It might seem strange to focus on a woman in a film about a gay man, but Alex and Claire’s intimate relationship means Alex’s development affects her — and Craig Johnson depicted her with more agency than I’ve seen in other gay films. The film’s not about her, but she’s not a one-dimensional stock character plot device, either.

I’m not sure how other viewers might have felt about Claire setting up Alex and would-be boyfriend Elliot (Antonio Marziale) at the high school prom, but I thought it was a great representation of how Claire comes to support and love her boyfriend, Alex. Her relationship with Alex does a great job of showcasing the complexities of love. It’s clear by the end that Alex and Claire do love each other, but not in the way that we all keep talking about (and putting into films) — not all people who love one another have to have sex or make out, and deep feelings for each other, romantic or otherwise, might have nothing to do with sexual desire.

And that scene with Claire’s mother when they start talking about men had me laughing and giggling all the way to the end of the film. Yes, teenage boys suck. So do college boys. I know about those two groups from personal experience, and I don’t doubt that it remains true for middle-aged men.

Elliot: You deserved better

Elliot (Antonio Marziale) in Alex Strangelove. Screenshot of film from Netflix.

Where Alex Strangelove falls short the most, at least for me, is Elliot. Antonio Marziale did an amazing and underappreciated job in giving life to the lovable  character, but there’s only so much you can do when it’s just bad writing.

First, Elliot’s the only other gay man that we really see in the film. He’s the one that prompts Alex to question his sexuality, and he’s such a fun, lovable guy (that dancing!) that I want to hang out with Elliot.

Elliot doesn’t play a huge role in the film. Early on, he starts Alex’s questioning journey by asking him “how do you know you’re straight,” then serves as a foil for Alex’s projections of gay fantasies. He gets a scene when Alex and Claire have sex (as Alex’s mental projection) before properly coming back at prom. I’m OK with that, because the film is about Alex’s relationship with himself, not with Elliot, and his presence during the middle of the film would only have got in the way of Alex’s self-discovery. In that way, Elliot in full white garb at prom represents Alex’s “coming clean” as a true untainted self-gay guy.

But being the film’s only other gay character — and properly out and identifying gay man — means there’s a lot riding on how Elliot is depicted.

I think the film fell short here because Johnson didn’t develop Elliot as a character and instead used him as a plot device to further Alex’s development. I’m delighted that Elliot is attracted to Alex, but I’m upset at how that was depicted — as far as my experience goes, gay men aren’t just immediately attracted to all other men, and most gay men would be upset if another man just impulsively kissed them the way Alex did with Elliot. I can’t imagine that would change much for gay teens (but then, I have no idea what the teens are going on about).

This could easily have been avoided if there had just been another gay man in the film who wasn’t attracted to Alex, but I guess someone thought having three gay men in a film was one too many. (Dell showing his dick to Alex doesn’t really count because, again: please stop obsessing over the penis.) Love, Simon did a much better job: the other main gay character in Love, Simon, Ethan, has the brilliant line “it’s not like your all-hoodie wardrobe rocks my world.”

We learn about Ethan’s backstory and hidden struggles with being gay, too, in Love, Simon — a backstory that’s never explored for Elliot in Alex Strangelove. While we learn early that Elliot’s father threw him out because he was gay, we never hear much more of that story. That’s upsetting, particularly since LGBT youth homelessness is a serious issue: The Williams Institute at UCLA Law has found LGBT youth are significantly more at risk of experiencing homelessness, and while it’s not mentioned in Alex Strangelove, LGBT youth are also at significantly higher risk for suicide.

These are real issues, and that Alex Strangelove (and Love, Simon) barely acknowledged such problems is disturbing. These films are normalizing LGBTQ stories and celebrating the successes of equality movements, but they’re choosing to obsure the realities of being LGBTQ in today’s society. For heterosexual, cisgender audiences who have never personally dealt with these situations, films like Alex Strangelove are probably their few glimpses into these life stories, and failing to include social issues erects a facade that LGBTQ suffering is a thing of the past.

There’s a part of me wondering if Alex Strangelove would have been a much better film if it was about Elliot instead of Alex. Sure, it would be a lot more depressing, but it’ll also be a perspective that hasn’t been explored in any of the gay films released so far this year. Depicting these struggles — of how Elliot comes to terms with his own sexuality, probably with no or secret contacts with other queer characters, and how he grows up and deals with the relationship with his father — would be a true milestone for LGBT inclusion.

Quick final thoughts

  • Alex is another gay white cisgender man. I didn’t mention it throughout because I already criticised Simon to the bone for this, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. When do we get a film about bisexual men, gay women, or anyone trans? Also, is anyone ever going to talk about asexuality?
  • Alex Strangelove is a great pun on the character’s name, Alex Truelove, although it honestly just feels like it was written in so Alex could say “love is strange” and we’d all get a pun out of it. I’m all for punny things but this felt like a cheap joke.
  • I’ll take a minute to appreciate the swearing (there’s a lot of swearing). As far as I know, that’s more approximate to how teens talk these days. (But, again, what do I know about teens these days?)
  • “I’d be more worried about the environmental catastrophe when that thing breeds.” You go, Blake (Nik Dodani). Kudos for getting your priorities right. Kids, don’t illegally import dangerous and foreign species of wildlife. (What happens to the frog?)
  • That fight scene at the frat party did nothing for my “can we not uphold these super problematic structures of masculinity” mood. Frat boy attacks Alex, then woman (who was disappointed sexually by Alex moments earlier) finds this new macho dude super hot. Like, really?
  • Alex buying condoms for the first time was a scene so real that I had to pause the film to cringe for several minutes.
  • Gretchen’s weird, but also pretty cool. The cozy, intimate relationship between Gretchen and Elliot makes me uncomfortable and wish I had a Gretchen in my life.
  • The Golgi apparatus is actually more or less responsible for manufacturing and shipping the molecules produced by, and synthesized in, the endoplasmic reticulum, although it’s fairly weird phrasing (how do you produce something at one place and manufacture it an another?). Points for trying to get the science right, though.
  • What happened to all the animated doodles? Those were adorable. It really felt like the visual effects budget was exhausted within the first few minutes of the film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.