Funny, cute and good-natured, but also trying a bit too hard to achieve those qualities, “Alex Strangelove” is equal parts homage to the teen comedy genre and an earnestly seriocomic coming-out story. Writer-director Craig Johnson’s fourth feature is probably his best to date, hitting the target more consistently than “The Skeleton Twins” or “Wilson.” Still, his best is surely yet to come, on the day he finally relaxes a bit and prizes emotional truth over antic comedy. Nevertheless, “Strangelove” should please a fair number of viewers when it launches day and date June 8 on Netflix and in limited theatrical release.
Amiable beanpole Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny, who plays a similar character in the concurrent Canadian feature “Adventures in Public School”) is a straight-A suburban high-school senior. He’s also a confessed nerd — though hardly scorned as such, since he’s been elected class president.
His small circle of guy pals is considerably altered by the arrival of new girl Claire (Madeline Weinstein from “Beach Rats”), who’s smart and droll, and with whom he immediately clicks. The relationship inevitably evolves from platonic to otherwise, but remains chaste until the day Claire blurts out to his friends that they haven’t “done it” yet. Worse, she admits what’s holding them back is his perceived skittishness; he’d been telling himself it was the other way around. They promptly resolve to end all virginity (actually, his) with a motel-room date.
Their plan creates performance anxiety for Alex, who has a tendency to overthink things anyway. Adding to his fretfulness is new friend Elliott (Antonio Marziale), a slightly older boy he met at a party. The unmistakable attraction between the two upsets Alex’s idea of himself. Is he really gay? Bi? Whatever turns out to be the case, he’ll have a hard time keeping such worries secret, since Claire is as adept at reading him as he is neurotically self-absorbed.
“Alex Strangelove” trades in real-world teenage emotions, but can’t help idealizing their context — it takes place in a universe where mildly raunchy humor and complete tolerance cohabit, where social cliques exist but no evident bullying or homophobia. Drugs and alcohol are consumed by the underage, with consequences no more serious than jokey embarrassment. Parents have their idiosyncrasies (or even possibly terminal cancer, like Claire’s mom), yet are reliably supportive. Growing up is humorously “awkward,” though this is the kind of movie in which teens spout precocious, emotionally articulate dialogue that’s more what people retroactively wish they’d thought to say as adolescents than what adolescents would actually say.
John Hughes’ beloved ’80s teen comedies are the most conspicuous among many cinematic reference points here — there’s actually an onscreen discussion about “16 Candles.” But that film was a farce of almost Preston Sturges-like snap, crackle and pop. While Johnson often encourages his nimble cast to act in a farcical mode, his jokes and comic timing aren’t so precise. The humor here is more of a stretch than it is organic, and the film has a few too many tricks up its sleeve: There are scattered animation effects (notably when Daniel Zolghadri as the protagonist’s bestie, Dell, trips on psychedelic Amazonian frog secretions) to voiceover narration to a running gag comparing human behavior to the animal kingdom, illustrated via stock footage.
None of these are necessarily bad ideas, but they feel too piled-on and premeditated to strike the desired anarchic note. “Strangelove,” like Johnson’s prior features, would be even more ingratiating if one didn’t sense it straining to please at nearly every juncture.
Nonetheless, this is a lively, resourceful and tightly paced enterprise, drawing uniformly good performances from well-cast actors. Design elements are colorful if occasionally over-busy, in an otherwise smooth tech package. All in all, it’s hard to dislike “Alex Strangelove”; one just wishes the film didn’t lean in quite so insistently to be petted.