Joel Kim Booster’s gay romantic comedy

From left: Torian Miller, Bowen Yang, Margaret Cho, Tomas Matos, and Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island

From left: Torian Miller, Bowen Yang, Margaret Cho, Tomas Matos, and Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island
Image: Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

It doesn’t take long for Fire Island, Joel Kim Booster’s instant-classic Jane Austen riff, to stake its claim in the romantic comedy canon — or rather, defiantly outside of it. Less than a minute into the opening sequence, Booster refers to Pride And Prejudice, his source material, as “hetero nonsense.” As this story’s Lizzie Bennet stand-in, gay Brooklynite Noah continues to narrate: he shudders at the “boyfriend energy” of the naked man in his bed whose name clearly eludes him, then calls his chosen family, the group of friends on their annual Fire Island vacation, the F-word (the one reserved for gays). “Don’t cancel me,” he tells us, tongue firmly in cheek. “I’m reclaiming it!”

Suffice it to say this isn’t your typical rom-com — but then again, how could it be? With all due respect to But I’m A Cheerleader and rather less respect to Love, Simon, queer audiences haven’t seen themselves reflected much in a genre that, at least in its heyday, defined Hollywood’s mainstream and reinforced heteronormative sociocultural standards. Booster and director Andrew Ahn use Austen’s tale of class tension, a romantic comedy urtext, to laugh in the face of such standards, and introduce some new ones. Queer and straight viewers alike may experience Fire Island on Hulu with a mix of delight and disorientation; they haven’t worked the muscles of watching a gay will-they-won’t-they story, let alone one populated by unabashedly out characters.

As much a documentary-like depiction of the titular queer haven as it is a real-deal romantic comedy, Fire Island‘s real love letter is to the experience that is Fire Island. LGBTQ + vacationers from New York City and beyond who have escaped to the little strip of land just off Long Island will feel immersed in its buoyantly liberating, sexually charged paradise, while those who have never visited will feel like they have. Performances from the likes of Bowen Yang and Margaret Cho keep the laughs coming, and Ahn indulges in plenty of swooning romance — just not between his scantily clad star-crossed lovers.

Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey captures the island’s utopia, immersing us in lush natural beauty even as well-sculpted arms and torsos crowd every other frame. You can practically smell the sea breeze as Noah and his “sisters” (Yang, Matt Rogers, Tomas Matos, and Torian Miller) arrive by ferry to their summer home away from home. Onlookers in colorful beachwear wave from the docks. A techno-infused cover of “Pure Imagination”Kicks off a soundtrack brimming with dance floor euphoria — absolute bops, all.

At the Fire Island Pines home of this makeshift family’s lesbian matriarch, Erin (the wonderful Cho), Noah resolves to steer Howie (Yang) away from lovey-dovey monogamy and toward getting laid. As the week progresses and the gang navigates the island’s party circuit, Howie follows his heart to genius doctor Charlie (James Scully) while Noah targets mysterious hunk Dex (Zane Phillips) —but both are deterred by uptight lawyer Will (Conrad Ricamora), who’s staying in a fancier house down the beach with Charlie and their judgmental friends.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Pride And Prejudiceor Bridget Jones’s Diary for that matter, can guess what happens next. Booster finds clever ways to transpose modern-day dating norms onto Austen’s conflicts between class and romance; if knavish George Wickham were alive today, he probably would indeed be exploiting hookups on OnlyFans. And just because Fire Island is a utopia doesn’t mean it’s not in America; Noah and Howie’s identities as gay Asian men carry compelling tensions, both explicit and unspoken. Contrasting their low-income, diverse, and flamboyant gaggle of personalities with Charlie and Will’s rich, mostly white, and utterly basic clique lets Booster make shrewd points about what’s considered desirable in the queer and especially gay male communities. “Race, masculinity, abs — just a few of the metrics we use to separate ourselves into upper and lower classes,” Noah quips helpfully to viewers who may not be familiar with the casual bigotry found on gay dating apps.

Those asides yield mixed results, and you can occasionally feel a strain between the film audience that Booster is addressing, even educating, and the one seeing themselves represented onscreen. For the former, a PowerPoint-style lecture presents the history of tea dances. Luckily for the latter, there’s a level of niche pop-culture fluency that anyone who watched Yang’s work on Saturday Night Live might expect (Ahn brilliantly lets his cast of comedians pack throwaway jokes and references, many clearly improvised, into every kiki — just wait for the heated game of Heads Up!). Most delightful of Booster-as-Noah’s narrations is a detailed explanation of various party drugs and illustrations of their effects.

Yang can’t help but steal scenes like that one; it’s what he does best. Here’s hoping we’re at only the beginning of his Hollywood takeover. The same goes for Booster, here infusing the acerbic observations typical of his stand-up work into both a character learning the value of vulnerability and a story that strikes the right balance between bitter and sweet. There aren’t quite as many sparks flying as there could be between him and Ricamora as this tale’s Mr. Darcy. But the latter proves so adept at teasing out the character’s charms that by the time he’s doing the classic awkward-public-dance-as-big-romantic-gesture trope, we can project our own infatuation with the guy onto the screen. It seems Ahn, who directed poignant performances from Hong Chau and the late Brian Dennehy in 2020’s Drivewaysis equally suited for a cast that isn’t afraid to do something as silly as count down the sunset, screaming numbers and fractions of numbers with glee.

It’s that kind of joy that separates Fire Island from any of its cinematic predecessors. Rom-coms are fantasies, especially summer rom-coms as dreamily sun-soaked as this one. Queer audiences might feel another layer of fantasy watching this film, with its specificity-is-universal approach and sumptuous portrayal of the ultimate safe space — one entirely free of straight people, which Billy Eichner’s upcoming studio comedy Bros promises as well. Fire Island will be released at the beginning of a fraught Pride Month, amid waves of regressive politics targeting LGBTQ + youth, not to mention anti-Asian hate and the reckonings of discrimination within discriminated communities that Booster is poking at. What better timing, Hollywood seems to be saying, for an escapist rom-com that’s out and proud? Certainly, if a golden age of gay cinema is finally entering the mainstream, Booster’s brand of wit and fuck-you defiance is sorely needed in the mix.

.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: