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There’s never been a shortage of teenage rom-coms on the movie theater marquee, but now it seems we’re gearing up for a new kind of renaissance. Queer coming-of-age stories are all the rage, told on screens of all sizes these days, and we couldn’t be more ecstatic about it. The non-heteronormative stories of the rest of us — not the lead quarterback or the head cheerleader, though sometimes we’re that, too — are finally finding their voice. The latest project to join the genre (yeah, it’s a full-fledged genre now) is Alex Strangelove, premiering on Netflix today, June 8, written and directed by Craig Johnson.
Alex is a charming, likable high school senior who’s got it all — a promising future, solid friends and a great girlfriend. The one thing he doesn’t have is a sex life. But Alex is well on his way to solving that — until meeting Elliot, the charming gay kid from across town, one night at a house party. Elliot represents to Alex a life of being comfortable in one’s own skin, and unwittingly sends Alex on a voyage of sexual investigation. Is Alex gay, straight or something in between? It’s all so confusing.
Johnson, who also penned and directed The Skeleton Twins, tells Hornet the story of Alex Strangelove is “very autobiographical.”
“There’s hijinks and silly stuff that happens in the movie that I didn’t experience, but the baseline — the DNA of Alex Strangelove — is autobiographical,” he says. “Specifically the sort of confusion I had with certain girls in my life as I was coming of age. Girlfriends, even into my 20s, for whom that confusion persisted. And me trying to fuse that legitimate feeling of love I felt for certain women in my life with the sex part — which didn’t work out so well, spoiler alert. It was always easier with guys, and eventually I rode that rollercoaster until I finally figured myself out.”
This film is that rollercoaster for our main character, and Alex Strangelove most excels in its relatability (though a bit more diversity in its characters’ racial makeup would have gone even further). For young queer people — occasionally adults, too — it can be tough to un-encrypt your feelings for someone. How many young gay kids loved their female friends, just not that way? It’s a messy process any way you slice it.
Or maybe that wasn’t your experience at all. It seems more and more queer kids of today aren’t the least bit confused when it comes to how they identify. That’s an idea that gets to the crux of this film, too. “There’re many kids that are like, ‘I knew when I was 6 years old,'” Johnson says, “and then there are some who are like, ‘I figured it out after being married when I was 35.’ Or 75.”
At the heart of Alex Strangelove is the idea that the ‘coming-out process’ is drastically different among individuals. There’s most definitely not one way to do it.
One scene in particular, in which Alex acknowledges to his girlfriend Claire that he’s not the straight guy he’d always thought he was, is what Johnson considers “the beating heart of the movie.” At what point must others’ feelings take a backseat so that we may live our own truth? It’s a struggle many of us have encountered. “We all have a journey of figuring this out,” Johnson says. “And for Alex, it wasn’t black and white.”
Johnson insists finding his lead for Alex Strangelove was the most difficult casting he’s ever done — not necessarily because of the character’s or the story’s queer elements but because he was hunting for an unknown who could carry a film. And it’s a complicated role at that. “You had to just have a spark to you, so that people wanted to watch you for an hour and a half, but also I wanted a kid who was plausibly believable as straight and plausibility believable as gay,” he says. “And he walked that balanced beam so that you really, if you don’t know where the movie ends up, you really aren’t quite sure where his journey is going to go.”
The director also divulges that he lucked out by finding two actors, Daniel Doheny (Alex) and Antonio Marziale (Elliot), who got along swimmingly. “They had a lot of affection for each other, and more importantly chemistry, because that’s not something you can invent, as a director,” Johnson says. “It has to be there between the actors, and you can just do your best to tease it out, but it’s wonderful, those two have the most wonderful friendship now. If Daniel, who lives in Canada now, comes to town he stays with Antonio.” (Of the two, only Marziale is gay.)
But the actors also related to the story Johnson had presented them with.
“I think Daniel really recognized the universal struggle that I hope comes through, to any teenager who watches the movie, which is basically that sex is confusing in high school,” Johnson says. “And love is tricky in high school, no matter who you are.”