I think it’s safe to say that Netflix has found itself a niche, teen comedies with a sexual edge, “raw dog” high school sex farces.
“The Kissing Booth” too demure for you kids? “F*&% the Prom” too subtle? Are they both too straight?
“Alex Strangelove” is a coming out comedy with all the trappings of “Let’s lose our virginity prom night” romps, sort of an “In & Out” for teens.
As in Alex Truelove, our hero (Daniel Doheny of “Adventures in Public School”) falls for the first girl to share his love for octopi and set off sparks with him on a gossipy, snarky school video project — “Savage Kingdom High.”
He’s a smart, kind, organized type — class president, sweet — with a solid grounding in common sense. “We are NOT licking this frog!” His girlfriend Claire is a classic Girl Next Door.
But while Alex and Claire (Madeleine Weinstein), “my official girlfriend,” are becoming a couple, they’re spending all senior year putting off that Big Night. Or Alex is.
“Oh my God, dude, you’re gay,” BFF Dell (Daniel Zolghadri) declares. “It’s totally cool. It’s the 21st century. Everybody’s gay!”
That ups the pressure on Alex to step up his game, think about condoms, practice his explicit sex talk with his stuffed monkey and work on logistics. What will change his mind? The Drama Geeks Party, with more sexually advanced kids in “Cabaret” wear?
“I think we’re here to corrupt you, Alex.”
That’s Elliott (Antonio Marziale). First give-away he might swing that way? He’s at a Drama Geeks party. Second? He’s got a plus-sized BFF, Gretchen, who pines for him.
As Dell experiences drug induced hallucinations -don’t lick frogs, kids — Alex and Elliott talk and make a lot of eye contact. Claire may butt in, but Elliott knows.
Writer-director Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins,” “Wilson”) doesn’t try to reinvent the teen sex comedy here. He barely escapes “Love, Simon” territory.
For a picture that would cross the R-line (close) on the big screen, “Alex Strangelove” has a chaste innocence about it, sweet with a naive hero practicing his dirty talk.
“Let’s get a hotel room! I’m gonna sex you…like a tornado on fire!”
Elliott doesn’t respect the “girlfriend” claims. He’s a year or so older. He’s got all the gay psychoanalysis skills when it comes to Alex’s favorite animals and favorite toys — penile resemblance.
There’s frank, flippant talk about how girls are more sexually aware than boys, “They watch ‘GAME OF THRONES!'” And the heart to heart between the gay guy and the not-close-to-certain guy is poignant and charming, pained but not strained — easy.
Alex isn’t the only one confused. Claire — “My mom made me watch this old movie the other day, ‘Sixteen Candles.'” It doesn’t help.
Kathryn Erbe plays the mom, by the way.
In creating this freshly-scrubbed teen romantic fantasy, Johnson goes for sensitivity, which this picture has in surplus, and laughs — which he doesn’t often find. It’s less ambitious than his homosexuality/depression/underage abuse “comedy” “The Skeleton Twins,” which was more adult, and lifted considerably by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. Here, the leads and supporting players are a pretty bland bunch, no matter what Johnson gives them to say. Nobody is that interesting, no one is particularly funny.
The tropes of the “coming out” genre will be familiar to anybody not in the film’s target audience, and as such, have a clinical sterility about them. “Confused” and “conflicted” and inept at the whole sex-with-girls-because-maybe-I’m-not-into-them doesn’t play as touching or funny at this stage.
Stilll, the teens have a tolerance you hope high schoolers — at least in the cities — have acquired. Boys share confidences we’ve never seen boys share in a teen movie, friends intervene to help arrange a hotel room “for you love birds,” boys go condom shopping together after getting initiated to the B-52s.
But we lose track of the potential First Gay Crush for most of the movie.
The funniest character is Hillary, Dell’s older-sister played with profane coed sass by Ayden Mayeri. Her exchanges with Marziale have the sting of sibling sass, no holds barred and unprintable.
The big scenes are explicit enough to titillate teens, predictable enough to bore anybody older, even if there are touchingly familiar moments here and there.
A memory of homophobic harassment feels real. And that contributes to the sense that a gay teen could take to heart a lot of affirmation out of a movie like this, even though it plays kind of limp and stale. It panders to one righteous practice of Generation Over-Share — owning one’s sexuality in a Youtube declaration of “It Gets Better.”
Johnson may have a character quote and interpret that “old film” “Sixteen Candles.” But whatever he hoped to crib that from minor classic, he missed the spark, the warmth, the rude wit and the simple romance. “Strangelove” is merely instructional, sprinkled with profanity and macking and frog-licking to give it “edge.”
This is closer to an “After School Special,” and yes — that’s an even older reference than “Sixteen Candles” — an R-rated “After School Special.”
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, explicit sexual situations, substance abuse, profanity
Cast: Daniel Doheny, Madeleine Weinstein, Kathryn Erbe, Antonio Marziale
Credits: Written and directed by Craig Johnson. A Netflix/Red Hour release.
Running time: 1:38