The Netflix Original teen comedy Alex Strangelove (★★★½) introduces its protagonist quipping animal kingdom analogies about his high school. But anyone who knows the classic high school comedy Mean Girls will recognize his web-series Savage Kingdom High as a patented Cady Heron move, merely updated for the Youtube generation.
Written and directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), the film appears at first prepared to lean past homage into just lifting from the best coming-of-age comedies. But it quickly course-corrects, veering towards its own quirky brand of R-rated horny teen pastiche. Combining elements from everybody-must-get-laid film franchises like Porky’s and American Pie, with the suburban melodrama of John Hughes romances, Alex Strangelove finds novel and occasionally hilarious ways to spin the familiar into something fresh.
First, junior class president Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) isn’t a hormone-addled outsider. He’s a seemingly well-liked kid, who early on is happily paired up with cool, movie-quoting girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein), co-host of Savage Kingdom. Alex and Claire are deeply invested in their relationship and in losing their virginity to each other, before the film throws a major complication into the mix: Alex finds himself hotly attracted to out gay Elliott (Altered Carbon‘s Antonio Marziale).
Alex and Elliott meet-cute at a raging high school house party, and soon are hanging out and taking trips into the city to see bands in Brooklyn. The movie dangles the possibility that Alex might be bisexual. Or, he might, as his straight-talking bud Dell (Daniel Zolghadri) suggests, just have a man-crush on a gay guy.
Johnson’s script cleverly acknowledges that, while adults these days face their own challenges making sense of identity, sexuality, and proper terminology, it must be a whole other struggle for young people to grasp the breadth of identity contained in every letter of the LGBTQIA spectrum. Dell and Alex debate in one scene whether maybe life was easier before 17-year old boys had to consider if they’re polyamorous or omnisexual.
Strangelove gets a lot of comic mileage out of Zolghadri’s constantly exasperated Dell, who also delivers a good pep talk. Dell is involved in a horrendous moment of gross-out comedy that you might see coming, but it still gets the dirty job done. Too bad guffawing crowds don’t come with a Netflix subscription.
For the most part, relative newcomer Doheny isn’t as funny, but he’s a compelling romantic lead. Marziale’s Elliott might be a bit too gay-movie teen dream, dancing around to early B-52s in a tight Keith Haring t-shirt. Luckily, the two spark together, and their chemistry overcomes their equally distracting, though for different reasons, mops of chestnut hair.
Doheny also shares a bubbly, true-feeling rapport with Weinstein (whose IMDB page notes point-blank that she is not related to Harvey). Alex Strangelove gains dimension by depicting the title character’s coming out as a journey that involves Claire too. Often these cinematic coming-out journeys leave that last girlfriend stranded in the margins, tearfully pining for her Elio or Simon.
Here, the story and Weinstein’s performance make Claire someone who has as much innocence to lose, and as much to learn about libido, as Alex does. Their shared coda emphasizes that his story and her story are being lived out in some fashion by teens everywhere.
Alex Strangelove is not rated, and is available on Netflix starting Friday, June 8. Visit netflix.com.