Film Review – Fire Island

Film Review – Fire Island

Fire Island

Fire Island

Partially inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride & PrejudiceFire Island (2022) is a romantic comedy that celebrates all the messiness of friendship and romance. The title refers to Fire Island, New York, which has long been known as a vacation getaway for members of the gay community. It’s here where people can escape the stigmas and judgments of society and be free to enjoy themselves (and others). Directed by Andrew Ahn, the film depicts the location as a kind of otherworldly place, where time stretches and spontaneity reigns supreme. There is life and energy here – characters navigate the ups and downs of their personal dramas amid gorgeous scenery, six pack abs, and sex.

Ahn’s previous big screen effort was the masterful Driveways (2019), which I named the Top Film of 2020. Although Fire Island is a universe away in terms of tone, Ahn still manages to inject a humanistic perspective. His best skill is in letting these characters be completely open, to fully express who they are emotionally and physically. Too often, in movies about gay people, everything is buried under subtext. Filmmakers dance around the homosexuality, suggesting or playing down what is being told to prevent alienating outside observers. That is not the case here. The narrative fully embraces its subjects and doesn’t compromise itself for others. Don’t understand the jokes about PrEP or “Meat Racks?” That’s not the film’s problem to solve.

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Joel Kim Booster showcases his many talents, operating as screenwriter, lead actor, and narrator. He plays Noah, a commitment-challenged young person who – along with his friends – take a trip to Fire Island for a week full of hijinks. Noah is not shy about his hesitancy with relationships. When we first meet him, he is kicking out his latest one-night stand even while they are still in bed. Not only does Noah head to Fire Island to make memories and hook up, but to help best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) who has been unlucky in love. Where Noah scoffs at the thought of monogamy, Howie believes in old school movie romance. He wants to be swept off his feet by someone he can spend the rest of his life with. Much of the narrative tension involves Noah and Howie’s thoughts of love conflicting with one another.

Booster’s writing and Ahn’s direction balances the raunchiness with subtle insights on class and race. This is exemplified when Noah and Howie’s circle meets another group of men at the island. Amongst this new group are Will (Conrad Ricamora) and Charlie (James Scully). Will, Charlie, and their friends reside in a fancy house overlooking the water. In contrast, Noah, Howie, and their group had to scrap together the funds to get there – with the help of their lesbian matron, Erin (Margaret Cho). The difference in economic standing creates immediate tension, both postivie and negative. Where Howie and Charlie form an immediate connection, Noah and Will start off on the wrong foot. Assumptions are made, feelings are hurt, and personal insights come to light. Isn’t that how it always happens in a rom com? Characters start off at each other’s throats and then end up in each other’s arms. Noah points this out by describing how his conversations with Will have left him both angry and horny at the same time.

The cinematography (Felipe Vara de Rey), production design (Katie Hickman), and editing (Brian A. Kates) establish a distinction between the bright warmth of day scenes and the neon moods of the nightlife. The beaches and water shimmer under the sun, while nightclubs hum under greens and blues. Backrooms and tucked away areas – where some of the more “explicit” activities take place – are basked in shadow or lit in deep reds. This aesthetic creates an otherworldly effect, where anything can happen at any given time. The costuming has characters routinely in nothing except their underwear. The sheer number of bare torsos amplifies the notion that these characters are presenting themselves however they deem fit.

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The supporting cast brings a lot of laughs, particularly from Noah and Howie’s friends. Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomas Matos), and Max (Torian Miller) don’t get much screentime, but make the most of their opportunities. They each provide their own brand of energy, even if it is as observers of Noah and Howie’s romantic entanglements. In fact, if there is an element that comes up short, it’s that we do not get enough of these three. This is especially true for Miller, whose uptight Max is pushed far into the background. The only memorable moment Max has is a drug-infused freakout at a club. Another sequence involves one of three getting put into a compromised situation that could leave them humiliated. Instead of resolving the story for the purpose of the individual, it’s used to build the relationship between Noah and Will. I wouldn’t mind seeing a spinoff in which Luke, Keegan, and Max take center stage.

Fire Island takes its genre construct to its logical conclusion. The big, grandiose displays of affection are a bit too sugary sweet for my taste, but maybe that’s what the production was going for. It’s a traditional story told in a non-traditional way, and that’s a good thing. It’s a movie about accepting oneself and others – about growing up in a quickly changing world. Whether gay, straight, or somewhere in between, we can all stand to learn a little more from that sentiment.

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