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Fire Island review: A sweet, queer romcom that takes aim at Jane Austen’s ‘hetero nonsense’

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Dir: Andrew Ahn. Starring: Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang, Matt Rogers, Margaret Cho, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Zane Phillips. 105 minutes.

What’s more radical: reimagining the canon or getting rid of it altogether? That’s the lingering question of Fire Island, a queer, modern-day update of Pride and Prejudice – one which, in its very first scene, dismisses Jane Austen’s marriage plot as “hetero nonsense”. The romcom, written by and starring comedian Joel Kim Booster, doesn’t quite make the most of its conceit. On a purely structural basis, its story is a little too reverential to the original novel in a way that, for example, Clueless’s spin on Emma wasn’t.

But it’s undoubtedly compelling to see Fire Island interrogate Austen’s social commentary – particularly those ideas of “pride” and “prejudice” – in the context of contemporary gay culture. The battles of wits don’t take place here in the intimacy of an aristocratic ballroom, but in the clubs and glass-walled summer homes of Long Island’s famous gay travel destination. The island of the title is where New Yorkers can find that rare escape from the suffocating smog of heteronormativity. But that doesn’t immediately make it a paradise for all. As Kim Booster’s Noah points out early on – largely for the benefit of straight viewers – “race, masculinity, abs [are] just a few of the metrics we use to separate ourselves into upper and lower classes”. Someone offhandedly brings up the fact that Grindr is still plagued with bios shamelessly demanding “no fats, no femmes, no Asians”.

Fire Island, at its core, is an examination of how two friends – Noah and Bowen Yang’s Howie – internalise those prejudices and allow them to shape their own self-perception. When we first meet Noah, he’s in the middle of kicking a hook-up out of his apartment for having too much “boyfriend energy”. He’s decided the only way to never get hurt is to never take things too seriously. And, you know what? It works for him. Meanwhile, Howie’s self-esteem has been almost entirely whittled away. He’s never been in a relationship, though he silently craves romantic perfection.

Noah, Howie, and their “sisters” – their found family – set off on their annual vacation to Fire Island, described here as “gay Disney World”. But news that their older, matriarchal lesbian friend Erin (Margaret Cho) has to sell her long-time home on the island pushes the entire group into crisis mode. Director Andrew Ahn shoots the film’s central locale lovingly, all sun-tinged and hazy. But the film doesn’t let us forget that those dreamy days are swiftly slipping out of these men’s hands. Soon, they’ll have to face up to the rest of their lives.

Noah, then, is determined, in a very Emma-like way, to make sure Howie gets laid by the end of the trip. In fact, he’s made it a priority above his own pleasure, as perfect as the object of his affection – new arrival Dex (Zane Phillips), a hunk who’s read Dossie Easton’s The Ethical Slut – may seem. Thankfully, Howie almost immediately bumps into the very eligible Charlie (James Scully), though wooing him requires rubbing shoulders with his rich, white, rude and polo-wearing clique. The snobbiest among them is, perhaps, Will (Conrad Ricamora), a permanently disgruntled lawyer who doesn’t walk so much as skulk.

Will, as you might have guessed, is the Mr Darcy figure here. But even in Austen’s novel, the idea of a walking red flag with the secret heart of a prince already played as a high-flung fantasy. That doesn’t necessarily translate to Fire Island’s world, which is otherwise populated by grounded, recognisable people. It’s nice to see Yang, particularly, already a standout on Saturday Night Live, get such rich material to work with.

But it should be said that what’s layered and complex on paper comes across as sweet, breezy and fun on screen. There’s a particularly good scene where the ensemble argue about the relative cultural currency of Marisa Tomei versus Alicia Vikander. Fire Island is a true, escapist romcom at a time when audiences are still undernourished when it comes to queer romances that don’t end in death and despair. I even like to think that Jane Austen would agree about all that “hetero nonsense”.

‘Fire Island’ is streaming on Disney+ in the UK and Hulu in the US from Friday 3 June

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