Movie cliches don’t have to be problematic. For instance, the “cool” mom who tries a little too hard (forever emblematized by Amy Poehler in “Mean Girls”) — she can stay. In “Crush,” Sammi Cohen’s snappy teen comedy about first love, Megan Mullally offers a refreshing take on that exact trope, imagining her as a lustful MILF who’s a little too sex positive. And it’s not the only familiar gag refreshed into something new in this cute Gen-Z rom-com.
The film stars Rowan Blanchard as an aspiring high school artist who’s been nursing the same crush since fifth grade. The twist — if it even can be called that anymore — is that she’s queer and her crush is another girl. But unlike the try-hard mom, “Crush” definitively lays to rest any of those pesky tropes we’re so used to seeing in queer fare: There’s no tired coming out drama, no pining after a seemingly straight paramour, and certainly no kill your gays ending to this uplifting teen comedy.
“Crush” is, for better or worse, just like every other teen rom-com, extraordinary in its ordinariness. It succeeds at what it sets out to do: Give queer kids a totally enjoyable, and often quite funny, mainstream love story with a happy ending.
Under its commercial veneer, “Crush” slips in some pretty edgy humor, particularly around sex and queerness, that might give the movie a broader appeal beyond its target audience. It may not reach the comedic heights of “Booksmart,” the current high water mark for queer teen comedies, but it’s far from flunking out.
Daydreaming doodler Paige (Blanchard) lives with her mom (Mullally), a single mother by choice, in a quiet win for representation of solo parents. She has her heart set on attending CalArts, but she’s stuck on the personal essay, which calls for her to write about the most important thing that’s ever happened in her life. Since her super-cool mom didn’t bat an eye when she came out in third grade, all she can think of is her longtime crush on Gabriella Campos (Isabella Ferreira), which doesn’t seem particularly CalArts-worthy.
Meanwhile, a graffiti artist named KingPun has been decorating school property with their clever displays, and the school principal (Michelle Buteau, always a slam dunk for comedic relief), thinks Paige is KingPun. Out to deliver a KingPunishment, the principal and her dopey sidekick Coach Murray (Aasif Mandvi, also funny) hatch a plan to make Paige join the track team, since they need a fourth for the relay race. Luckily for Paige, Gabby is track team captain.
When Paige shows up in Converse and track shorts on backwards, it’s clear she’ll need some help, a job Coach Murray assigns to co-captain AJ (Auli’i Cravalho). AJ happens to be Gabby’s twin, though Paige has never paid her much attention. Understated and laidback, AJ rides a skateboard and keeps a low profile. Cravalho, who voiced “Moana,” is undeniably charming as the shy tomboy, comfortably growing up from her Disney princess roots. Though she has a tough exterior, her own innocent yearnings come through loud and clear with every dewy-eyed glance she sends Paige’s way. The PG-13 tension builds sweetly between the two characters, and it’s only a matter of time before Paige notices.
Hailing from an all-queer creative team of writers Kirsten King and Casey Rackham and director Cohen, “Crush” doesn’t have to play catch-up with its Gen-Z characters. Their dirty humor sometimes seems advanced for a generation that is supposedly having less sex than any before it, but it’ll keep older audiences interested and teaches safer sex practices to the young ones. Mullally valiantly shoulders the burden of entering a scene simply to deliver one-liners about dental dams, vibrators, and even poppers. (Paige’s response to the latter: “Wrong type of gay.”)
“Crush” counts Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph amongst its producers, and their names suggest a shifting tide as women of their generation gradually gain more influence in Hollywood. While Millennials had the pleasure of watching Rudolph and Lyonne onscreen, Gen-Z is reaping the benefits of what happens when funny women get the power to give the green light. Hopefully “Crush” is just the first of many.
As AJ and Paige eventually get their grand finale, a dramatic declaration of love in front of the whole school, yet another cliched trope works its magic on another generation. Young people watching “Crush” may never know how rare that happy ending is, and when they experience their first love, they’ll get to write their very own new beginning.
“Crush” is currently streaming on Hulu.