Netflix’s Alex Strangelove Offers a Refreshingly Honest Look at Teenage Sexuality

Daniel Doheny stands in a school hallway with a backpack on.
Daniel Doheny as Alex Truelove in Netflix’s Alex Strangelove. Drama Party Inc./Netflix

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

“It’s the twenty-first century—everyone is gay,” high schooler Dell declares breezily early on in writer-director Craig Johnson’s new Netflix raunch-com Alex Strangelove. The eponymous Alex is skeptical, and rightly so: His tentative challenge—“Are you gay?”—is met with an emphatic “Fuck no!”

It’s an exchange that establishes the tone and the tension underlying much of what follows. Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) is senior class president, the proud owner of a 3.94 GPA, and “a perfect boyfriend on paper—until his anxieties about sex with his girlfriend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein), are compounded by the arrival of an older boy he can’t seem to get out of his head. The possibility of bi- or pansexuality has long been on his radar, but as Strangelove shows, simply having such labels at hand isn’t always enough to work out where you fit in. That’s particularly true when you still have to contend with blustering, bro-y friends like Alex’s, who castigate him for his failure to sleep with Claire until he resolves to book a hotel room to do just that.

What’s taken him this long is something of a mystery to everyone, Alex included. Doodled hearts and octopi blossom around his head when he first meets his fellow cephalopod aficionado, and the animated accents to their meet-cute offer glimpses of a more original aesthetic amid otherwise unambitious visuals. But even after the scribbled-in sparks fade, the relationship is solid and believable. Weinstein in particular is excellent as Claire, a well-developed character in her own right who’s more than an ill-handled obstacle or accessory to the “real” gay romance à la Call Me by Your Name’s Marzia. Doheny, too, excels when the two are allowed to be vulnerable with each other, struggling to navigate their increasingly incompatible needs.

Alex’s would-be boyfriend Elliott is a little thinly drawn by contrast, but Antonio Marziale (who may already be familiar to LGBTQ viewers from beloved web series The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo) makes the most of every opportunity he’s given. Elliott’s self-assured embrace of his own identity is also heartening to see—he’s a rare breed of fictional gay teen with a Keith Haring t-shirt, a Moonlight poster on his wall, and the confidence required to lip-sync along with the B-52s in front of his crush. It’s a move that pays off: Alex kisses him, prompting an identity crisis as he wonders whether he might be bisexual after all.

This is a different kind of reckoning than we’ve seen in the recent Love, Simon and elsewhere. Alex isn’t hiding a festering secret at all costs so much as uncovering a truth about himself that a society in which straightness is the norm has so far allowed him to ignore. The script’s decade in development hell may be responsible for some dated aspects (its understanding of polyamory is suspect, and I don’t know anyone who still says “interwebs”), but in other ways, Johnson’s dialogue feels genuinely fresh. Bisexuality is virtually never named explicitly in wide-release movies (despite all the extra-textual teasing about characters like Deadpool or Lando Calrissian), and Strangelove’s willingness to do so speaks to what the Netflix model has to offer: Namely, an expansion of the ideas and identities that are up for discussion in teen movies whose theatrical counterparts might still be more constrained.

The free reign afforded to a Netflix original is likewise felt in the language. Dell (Daniel Zolghadri)’s early f-bomb is not the first, nor by any means the last, and Strangelove’s R-rated elements serve it well in that its teens talk and act like teens—for better or for worse. The characters’ freedom to swear (and to psych themselves up in excruciatingly awkward ways for what will be excruciatingly awkward sex) should make this land closer to home for much of its target audience. The result is a little uneven, but broadly entertaining and honest, even when that’s embarrassing or messy or unflattering.

Dell himself is frequently many of those things, and is sometimes frustratingly incoherent as a result. He bemoans the turn his generation has taken in a bizarre rant that ends, “Isn’t anyone just plain straight anymore?” It’s an odd bone for him to pick, given that it gestures at a world we don’t really see—everyone in Alex’s immediate circle is, in fact, “just plain straight” until Elliott enters the picture. Up to that point, queerness exists primarily on the margins of the film, manifesting in a gender-nonconforming, possibly-pansexual classmate and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lesbian kiss in the background (during one of several “Savage High School” YouTube videos in which Alex and Claire liken their classmates to “randy African hippos”).

But underneath his misguided bravado, Dell wants Alex to be happy, and the film does, too; it’s a compassionate portrait for all its crudeness. Alex Strangelove ultimately serves as a funny—and occasionally filthy—commentary on heteronormativity and the work that goes into overcoming certain ingrained expectations about the trajectory of a life. Alex has a vision of how his future will unfold, reinforced by his parents (who envision him walking across a Columbia University quad hand-in-hand with Claire) and his friends alike. But as he reveals to Elliott, he has more unpredictable ambitions, too; and as he discovers himself, his own desires don’t always fit into his “game plan” either. It’s a relatively low-stakes plot taken deathly seriously by its participants—but that’s exactly what this time of life is about. Johnson’s script is at its best when it dispenses with the psychoactive frog-based set-pieces and shows us that reality. Here’s hoping the next venture like it uses that freedom to push the boundaries a little further still.