When “Love, Simon” hit theaters earlier this year, it was celebrated as a moving but flawed studio movie about a gay teenager. For the first time ever, LGBTQ teens across the country could go to a movie theater, stuff popcorn in their faces, and witness a version of their lives on screen. Of course, we all know that teenagers are more likely to use Netflix than buy a movie ticket these days. That’s why “Alex Strangelove,” a delightfully strange little film about a teenage boy figuring out he’s gay, is so darn refreshing.
As the debate about whether Netflix is ruining movies lingers on, “Alex Strangelove” provides a pleasant reminder of the streaming behemoth’s powers for good. In some ways, the pros and cons of Netflix versus theatrical are illustrated by the differences between “Love, Simon” and “Alex Strangelove.” Whereas “Love, Simon” has dreamy Nick Robinson in the lead with a maternal Jennifer Garner to boot, “Alex Strangelove” is peppered with a quirky ensemble of relative unknowns. While Simon knows he’s gay and keeps it a secret, Alex wears his confusion on his sleeve, seeking advice (albeit not very good advice) every step of the way. Simon is chaste and gentlemanly; Alex says things like “touch my balls.” (It doesn’t go over well).
With a name like Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), our gangly protagonist was always destined to break hearts. He may look like a young Andrew Garfield, but Alex is a fumbling, chaotic, socially awkward kind of heartbreaker. Student body president and a lover of physics, Alex begins dating his best friend, the bright and warm Claire (Madeline Weinstein). Claire impresses him with the pickup line, “You really know your cephalopods,” and they start hosting an animal biology web series together called “Savage Kingdom High.” Unfortunately, their knowledge of human biology is sorely lacking.
Once Alex’s best friend and the movie’s comic relief, Dell (Daniel Zolghadri), finds out he and Claire haven’t had sex yet, the pressure is on. The movie then dives headlong into Alex’s performance anxiety, which begins with him practicing nipple play on his stuffed monkey and ends with Dell’s foul-mouthed older sister booking a hotel room for the two lovebirds. While mingling at a “drama party,” he meets the disarmingly charming and pillow-lipped Elliott (Antonio Marziale). One year older and gay, Alex is immediately drawn to the handsome stranger, so much so that he tells Dell he thinks he might be bisexual instead.
After pulling down his pants to test if Alex is really likes dick (that’s just the kind of guy Dell is), Dell explains that Alex probably just has a man crush on a gay guy. Besides, everyone is gay or bi or genderqueer or polyamorous these days, Dell decrees. (“Can’t anyone just be straight anymore?” Alex wonders.) From his raunchy oddball humor to a bad trip involving a psychedelic frog and a shockingly colorful gummy worm vomit scene, Dell worms his way into our hearts. He may point Alex in the wrong direction sometimes, but his observation about the ever-evolving spectrum of sexuality and gender identity bears the ring of truth.
Like “Love, Simon,” “Alex Strangelove” paints a fairly progressive picture of 21st century high school life, although not one without challenges. One fun difference that only Netflix could pull off: The kids in Alex’s world smoke, drink, and cuss like sailors. (They even buy psychedelic frogs). When Alex practices his dirty talk, it’s shockingly dirty for a teen movie, much to Claire’s horror.
As refreshing as it is to see onscreen teenagers acting like actual teenagers, the effect is jarring in an otherwise touching coming-of-age comedy. Like its nerdy-but-cute-maybe-bisexual-but-probably-gay protagonist, “Alex Strangelove” doesn’t quite know what kind of movie it wants to be. There are shocking gross-out moments, broad high school caricatures, and earnest love scenes. Elliott’s lip sync to the B-52s in a Keith Haring t-shirt and wig is adorable, but the character remains woefully underdeveloped. (Marziale still manages to make quite the impression.) While it’s nice that the girl isn’t simply brushed aside as a bothersome obstacle, it’s curious that the film spends far more time on Alex and Claire than Alex and Elliott. One would hope for a little more boy-on-boy action to go with all that R-rated teen spirit.
Director Craig Johnson, who had a hit with “The Skeleton Twins” in 2014, wants his movie to be cool, even though his protagonist is so clearly not. Still, Johnson hits all the expected beats of a teen coming-of-age comedy, marching to his own distinct rhythm. Landing somewhere between “Love, Simon” and “Superbad,” “Alex Strangelove” is a strange delight indeed.
“Alex Strangelove” hits Netflix on June 8.