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film review

Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang and Tomas Matos in Fire Island.Jeong Park/20th Century Studios

Fire Island

Directed by Andrew Ahn

Written by Joel Kim Booster

Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang and Margaret Cho

Classification R; 105 minutes

Streaming on Disney+ with Star starting June 3

Critic’s Pick

Where have all the good rom-coms gone? For lovers of the genre, especially millennials who grew up with modern-day classics, this has become a common refrain.

We wistfully remember the 1990s and 2000s era, when the form was less a dumping ground for comedic actors to cash in on their celebrity, and more a space in which sharp writing and easeful direction was the norm. Back then, Hollywood was churning out adaptations galore with the clear favourites being loose updates of Austen (Clueless) and Shakespeare (10 Things I Hate About You), which offered a solid foundation for timeless stories retold in contemporary worlds.

It is this contextual insight and cultural nostalgia that guides the Pride-ready movie Fire Island, from director Andrew Ahn and writer/actor/executive producer Joel Kim Booster. A retelling of Pride and Prejudice, the film trades Austen’s critique of the Regency-era gentry class for that of the post-2000s Fire Island demographic: predominately cisgender, gay white men with rock-hard bodies and the financial freedom to afford luxe lofts and top-shelf prices in the infamous New York landmass – a queer mecca and resort destination.

Conrad Ricamora and Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island.Jeong Park/20th Century Studios

Booster co-stars as Noah, an attractive Korean-American man who enjoys his sexual freedom as much as he does his annual trek to Fire Island with his group of friends, including Howie (Saturday Night Live breakout Bowen Yang), who yearns for romance but lacks Noah’s self-confidence and social prowess. As the two and their chosen family of likewise queer, broke friends set off, Noah vows to put his own busy sex life on the back burner in hopes of finding a partner, however temporary, for Howie.

As the Austenian plot unfolds (Noah comes to be our Elizabeth Bennet), so does the film’s cutting yet cool critique of the community its characters move through. Anti-Asian sentiment, fetishism and microaggressions abound, tempered by femmephobia, fatphobia, elitism and all the likewise ugly behaviour that lives between.

As the film’s wonderfully queered gaze follows Noah and Will, so, too, do we track their understanding of how desirability is mapped onto each of their bodies and lives. With this comes their rightful anger and frustration with the invisibility and abuse that they endure by simply existing as gay Asian-American men in queer spaces.

The comedy here is biting, wonderfully timed and grounded in the realities of a world that is given a full and developed life onscreen. Bolstered by Booster’s tight script, the story and characters, all of which are desperately overdue for such onscreen representation, are refined with an easy energy and momentum that offers a subtle intimacy and winking tone.

While not reinventing the rom-com wheel in any radical sense, Fire Island knows exactly the type of movie it wants to be and delivers on all fronts. It loves and centres its queer Asian-American characters while likewise shaping their orbits with a comforting verisimilitude.

The comedy in Fire Island is biting, wonderfully timed, and grounded in the realities of a world that is given a full and developed life onscreen.Jeong Park/20th Century Studios

In addition to its knowing gestures to the rom-com canon, Ahn and Booster’s film includes nods to other forms of millennial nostalgia, from waxing poetic about old SNL skits to performing vulnerable karaoke renditions of Britney Spears ballads. A single scene can contain multitudes, touched on in both earnest and in jest – jumping from the horribly predominant “no fats, no fems, no Asians” sentiment to the merits of Legally Blonde, or coyly recalling tales of late-night cruising.

Fire Island is a wonderfully kaleidoscopic way of foraging characters and moments that feel true to life.

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