Alex Strangelove movie review: Warm, simple coming-of-age story burdened by unnecessary sub-plots

Anupam Kant Verma

Jun 15, 2018 12:33:04 IST


On the face of it, Alex Strangelove, the new Netflix film, is full of charm. It starts off all cute, mindful of the teenage films it draws from — opening monologue alert — and sticks steadfastly by its frequently annoying protagonist, a ploy to remain as authentic as it can be. The actors contribute greatly to this cause by turning in confident performances. But an under-explored, perhaps unnecessary, subplot here and there, characters drifting in and out of the narrative, and a tight-lipped political correctness shear away the overall effect of the film. That said, it is tough not to like it. There is a great deal of warmth radiating from the simple-mindedness of its events. You cannot help but let yourself be drawn along. At its best, Alex Strangelove turns on enough charm to ferry you through its flaws and dramatic longeurs.

A still from Alex Strangelove. Netflix

A still from Alex Strangelove. Netflix

Alex is a slightly awkward and cute high school nerd who is obsessed with animals, particularly cephalopods. He is best friends with Dell, a short, bouncy guy who dishes out advice at the drop of a hat. Claire is Alex’s girlfriend and seems to know a lot about '80s high school films. Now, Alex and Claire have not had sex yet. Their efforts to change that become complex when Alex finds himself drawing closer to a charming guy, Elliott, therefore leading him to question his sexuality and himself. He goes from one to another and back, seemingly confused about whether he is straight, gay or maybe even bisexual.

The film appears to be obsessed with everybody’s concerns about Alex losing his virginity. Even Alex seems to be getting fed up with it; to the degree that he lashes out at Claire more than once, gets ruder and ruder to friends and love interests. If the film is to believed, ignores the YouTube campus news channel he runs with his girlfriend. Claire bears the brunt of Alex’s confusion the most, followed closely by Dell, who simply refuses to believe his friend can be gay. That there is the apparent simplicity of the narrative that can very well be construed as a clever refusal to engage with the subject more substantially by disguising it underneath a cute, insulated exterior.

Mind you, the film you are watching is competently made, the soundtrack is effective, the acting almost first rate. Director Craig Johnson can make you feel amply comfortable and safe as you sit on your couch watching. It even has its fun and what the! moments, one involving a frog and a talking hosepipe in particular. But it evokes a feeling all too familiar to be rousing and truly heartwarming, culminating in a finale that is as familiar and obsolete as they come. Events unfold as they do in films, hardly registering a surprise. Perhaps more than anything else, the director and writer’s decision to allow Alex’s sexual confusion to override and compensate for his flaws, and his behaviour, comes across as horribly out of the spirit of the times.

Alex Strangelove also suffers from the annoying habit of forgetting about its characters and subplots more than once. Elliott, for instance, appears to unsettle Alex’s singularly focused frame of mind, and disappears conveniently enough to allow Claire and Alex’s troubles to occupy centre stage. He then shows up right at the end, again conveniently. Alex and Claire’s YouTube channel suffers the same fate. Throughout, Johnson picks and drops his characters — except Alex, of course — in the service of a story where they cannot possibly exercise any agency. Simply put, it is all about Alex. All sense of nuance is lost in the hands of a manipulative storyteller, leaving us to souse in the colour, confetti and the shapes offered by the genre’s most normative films.

Johnson’s film has to rely upon the strong performances turned in by his cast, Madeline Weinstein’s Claire and Daniel Zolghadri’s Dell in particular, to keep the audience on his side. They go a long way into creating genuine empathy for the characters and the situations they find themselves in. The fact that you do indeed care about them, even with all the flaws of the narrative, is in itself a compliment to the acting acumen on display in a film that could have had a thing or two to say had it decided to up the ante a bit. It chose to remain safe, courteous, reductive and devoted to the standards of the genre, thereby ignoring its great possibilities and ending up as a watchable, mildly funny film you will probably remember a tune or two from a few days after viewing it.

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 12:33:04 IST