Freeform’s forthcoming Valentine’s Day film, “The Thing About Harry,” is an earnest romantic comedy that follows high school enemies who are forced to share a ride to their hometown to attend a friend’s engagement party, only to have car trouble, bond overnight in a motel, and come out the other side with complicated feelings about each other. While the “opposites end up attracting” and “characters with complicated pasts find they have more in common” are staples of the genre, what sets this project apart is that the two central characters are both men.
“When you look at the Freeform ethos, that is inherent to who they are. Ever since I’ve worked there, and I’ve been there over seven years, they’ve always treated LGBTQ people as part of the human landscape,” writer, executive producer and director Peter Paige tells Variety. “Everything that matters to me as a storyteller, there’s always political stuff in it, there’s always social messaging, but the social messaging in this movie is in its construct. It’s one of our most venerable cinematic traditions, but we made it about two boys. That in and of itself is subversive and powerful and important.”
In the film, Sam (Jake Borelli) is a serious student with eyes on a future in politics. He is tasked to pick up the more free-spirited former jock Harry (Niko Terho). Although Sam was out in high school, Harry was not. But Harry quickly lets it drop during their road trip that he identifies as pansexual.
The idea for the film, Paige admits, was originally sold to Freeform with another writer, Joshua Senter, attached, but it was being developed as more of a “small town, conventional, almost like a Hallmark holiday movie,” he recalls, “and that didn’t quite land on the Freeform brand.” Originally, both Sam and Harry were going to be gay, but Paige says “the odds that two young, queer men under 25 both identify as gay feels slim to me in this generation.” So when he was approached to come aboard, having a long-running relationship with the network after co-creating “The Fosters” and its spinoff “Good Trouble,” he decided to make a key change.
“I work all day with millennials and Gen-Zers — that’s my job — and I try to observe who they are and what they value and how they communicate and where they struggle and where they don’t and how they are different from me,” Paige says. “There was a study recently that over 50 percent of high school students identify as something other than straight, so that’s a big inclusive aggregating of things, but I know pan is among them, and I love the notion of pansexuality not being about male or female but about ‘I am looking for the soul that speaks to me no matter what body it comes in.’ I thought that was so lovely and it made me instantly reevaluate the character of Harry; it softened him to me immediately. I thought that was young and modern and a way that that generation talks about sexuality in a way that my generation doesn’t. And not only was it fresh, it also opened up the landscape of the storytelling.”
Paige got his start in the industry as an actor in the late 1990s (and rose to onscreen fame with “Undressed” and “Queer as Folk) and notes that around that same time he would be “first person there every Friday night when a Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts movie opened,” so he has the rom-com genre in his bones. In not only writing but also directing “The Thing About Harry,” he wanted to infuse the project with the feeling that “you recognize the feeling of this movie from the very beginning” because it has some of classic genre moments within it. “It has the feeling of your favorite bathrobe or that coat that fits you so perfectly — but then it starts to reveal itself as being specific and unique and a little surprising along the way,” he explains.
The events of the film span years in time, beginning when Sam and Harry first reconnect after high school during that soon-to-become infamous road trip and continuing on to see them move into careers and relationships, somewhat dancing around their feelings for each other throughout.
“In college, 22-year-old men are still boys — I can say that because I am one. Men take awhile to get it together. So it was nice to be able to honor the reality of where and when men grow up,” Paige says of the storytelling. “I just set out to tell an unabashedly romantic story about two boys who were pretty different from each other and who came in with some preconceived ideas about each other falling in love.”
Paige wrote the script for “The Thing About Harry” in July 2019 and then directed it in November. As if the double duty and quick turnaround wasn’t enough, he also ended up acting in the film as a character named Casey who gives Sam some pivotal advice during a rough patch in this life.
“I did not write that for myself,” Paige admits. “But I wanted the movie to have a multi-generational component. When I wrote Casey’s speech to Sam on the couch — ‘I didn’t Act Up and march on Washington for all of those years so you could waste your life masturbating in a bedroom’ — that comes out of such an honest place for me; there’s a deeper meaning under that speech, which is my generation survived the plague and now people are killing themselves with crystal meth and it’s just devastating to me.”
It was through a conversation with the casting team that Paige decided to go ahead and play the role, which required “basically one day of shooting out of 18” that he would be in front of and behind the camera. What sealed the deal was being told how special it would be “having Emmett in this movie on the 20th anniversary of ‘Queer as Folk.'”
Although LGBTQ inclusion has widened from the early aughts when “Queer as Folk” blazed a trail for such relationship stories on the small screen, there is always room for more, Paige believes. “When you are one of few things or the first of a thing, people are very skeptical and territorial and they want it to look and feel like them. It’s an understandable issue and I’ve been exposed to it my entire career. ‘Queer as Folk’ had those issues, and on ‘The Fosters’ if there was an episode where the moms didn’t kiss, I got hate speech. You can get overwhelmed by other people’s expectations,” he says.
“I really hope this opens the door that somebody opens a trans rom-com, and I definitely think we need a great lesbian rom-com,” he continues, acknowledging Kristen Stewart’s upcoming film project in that vein. “I think we are part of a great moment in time where people are looking for unique and specific things that can potentially carve through the chatter, and I’m loving the queer component of all of that. It matters to people to see themselves inside that most revered of genres.”
“The Thing About Harry” premieres Feb. 15 on Freeform.