With release timing opportune, Searchlight is looking to save summer, set the tone for Pride season. And perhaps extend an olive branch for healing after an already rough ‘22 for the LGBT community. It all falls in the hands of an astonishingly fresh talent, making his feature writing debut. In Fire Island, star/co-writer Joel Kim Booster goes all in to delve from experience. Not only capturing the effusive spirit of New York’s friendliest getaway, he and director Andrew Ahn (Driveways) are itching to flip the standard gay rom-com formula upside its head. And maybe give Jane Austen fans a chance to breathe fresh seaside air, amid all the hard partying and infidelity.
Booster plays Noah, a Brooklynite nurse who couldn’t be any further away from settling down and finding a partner. He’s been wont to bail on casual flings without letting them grow, uncertain on their direction. Keeping that a constant thread on the back of his mind, he readies for his annual summer pilgrimage to the famed Fire Island alongside his colorful family. Anchored by mama bear Erin (Margaret Cho), the group of six proceed to make the most of a week at the hideaway. Especially after the bombshell drops that her financial nest egg has run dry and her condo needs to be sold. Thus implying this could be their last summer.
That alone establishes a grim set of circumstances, which Noah tries to turn into positives, often out of desperation, with his chums. There’s the brain-cell sharing Luke (Matt Rogers) and Keegan (Tomas Matos), college-educated Max (Torian Miller), and close bestie Howie (Bowen Yang), to whom Noah confides most in. On affairs of the heart, the pair maintain some common ground, one wary of his desires in a relationship, the other’s insecurities hobbling his pursuits to settle down. Quickly, Howie entrusts Noah to serve as wingman during this vacation week. Howie finds an ounce of potential with affluent Manhattanite Charlie (James Scully), the most down to earth in a squad of self centered rich guys. And Noah, in turn, winds up distracted at every corner. Either when batting off hard-nosed lawyer Will (Conrad Ricamora), not getting sucked in by smooth talking Dex (Zane Phillips), or butting heads with snobbish Cooper (Nick Adams).
On either edge of the dramatic spectrum, Austen’s handiwork, specifically the sibling dynamics of Pride and Prejudice, leaves a deep influence on Ahn and Booster’s story. Noah’s the quizzical narrator, Elinor to Yang’s Marianne. A master of indirect discourse, insightful without interrupting the flow of events. Booster grants that archetype a profound clarity, keeping a level, emotion-controlled head. Though only when his defenses are up, as Howie flails about in attracting Charlie’s attention. Yang, a recent darling of the SNL cast, channels in utter chaos laced with indelible longing, like the two ideals could realistically share a common hero.
But Ahn does not stop at describing friendships evolving; that’s merely half of the tale. With Noah covering years of history at a cliff notes pace, we gain a sense of the island hierarchy, and the rules being broken by trendy broke slobs mingling with rich preppies (Clueless much?). Sexuality takes a backseat to physicality, as well as the smallest inkling of self-control in a classist tide. For an otherwise mild rom-com defiant to its respective formula, Fire Island is nothing short of dense and abstract in expression. Most of its humor falls with its rule-breaking, its softly buried wrongdoing. Much of the latter lies with Cooper, a rigid obedient looking to maintain order, a likely baddie without being overwhelmingly evil. Next is Dex, seen as an aloof hunk distracting Noah’s judgment, unaware of Will’s existing attraction toward the mediator. Neither are necessarily working together, and yet co-existing to pull apart the convergence of social standings still does the trick.
Ahn sees no difficult trick in covering the bases of good and evil, elitist and demure. He achieves that, while keeping the mood airy and comical. It’s not entirely thought provoking, not quite a drama on its smarter topics, or the point of character insecurity. Nor does this story pride itself in its characters being fully indistinguishable from one another. Besides the class structure subplot, apparent clichés do render possible flourishes in the supporting cast very moot. Beyond Booster, Yang, and a rather animated Cho baring her claws as an utmost voice of reason, there’s very few people to root for. Ahn does manage to mellow out that factor of concern by raising the charm factor, and effortlessly amping the color palette. It’s a summer paradise, with a heightened dose of flat, bright hues. The way Felipe Vara de Rey (See You Yesterday) shoots it carries the film to a firm accuracy for time, place, and state of mind – the latter often inflated by intoxicants and the overconfidence of Britney Spears karaoke.
When its hindrances are most visible, they’re felt much worse. Ahn can’t quite merge the seriousness of emotional lapse and the not-so-straight comedy angle into a happy medium. Thankfully, when I laughed during Fire Island, it was the type of laughter coming from bliss or joy, not from consequence of action. It may be a rom-com, stinking of formulaic traits. But it’s a smart rom-com all the same, brave enough to challenge tropes in a tightrope-like fashion. If only its eclectic cast could more completely serve the story, versus a pair of overqualified, tactful leads carrying the whole thing on their shoulders. It’s not fair, even if the film overall is still a fun summer treat. (C+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Fire Island streams on Hulu June 3rd; rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout, drug use, and some nudity; 105 minutes.