Released: 14th June
Seen: 12th July
Fire Island is a little island just off the coast of Long Island in the state of New York and for decades now it’s been known as a gay hotspot. This little stretch of land is legendary in the gay community for its tea dances (afternoon teas designed for single gay men to meet up in the days when homosexuality was illegal) and its wild nightlife. If there is a long-running show that features gay characters, the odds are good that they will at some point mention Fire Island. Honestly the fact that it’s taken until now for a significant gay comedy that takes place on Fire Island is kind of astounding in itself but now we have one and it’s delightful.
Fire Island, loosely based on the story Pride & Prejudice, follows a group of friends as they make their annual pilgrimage to Fire Island. The main one that the film focuses on is Noah (Joel Kim Booster), he’s attractive and free-spirited with a penchant for hooking up whenever possible… normally, but not this year. This year Noah is putting his own sexual needs aside in order to help his good friend Howie (Bowen Yang) get laid, or at least get into the start of some potential relationship.
Things seem to be going well when Howie and another visitor to the island, Charlie (James Scully) hit it off. Still, while they’re having a fairly good time, Noah keeps bumping into the wealthy, kind-hearted but slightly standoffish Will (Conrad Ricamora) and getting into dramatic arguments with him which slowly opens Will up to being a more adventurous person. Like I said, LOOSELY based on Pride & Prejudice.
Fairly early on while viewing Fire Island you can really tell that this was made by gay men for a gay audience, it’s got a certain authenticity that is just there in every frame. The jokes are explicitly aimed toward a gay audience, the visuals are absolutely designed by a queer person to accentuate things that a straight director wouldn’t think about doing and the chemistry between the entirely queer cast is one that can only happen with a group of people who share the unique experience of being queer. There’s nothing compromised here to appeal to a straight mainstream audience, though they absolutely could enjoy this film provided they don’t overreact to the sight of dudes doing it (If gays can sit through dozens of films with straight people doing it, straight people can handle seeing this once).
With that authenticity comes a comedic ease, the jokes fire thick and fast between people who are experts at quick witty banter. Noah especially gets off more than his fair share of zingers but every character has at least one or two moments of outright hilarity and every single person manages to sell every single joke they’ve been handed. It’s also amazing at walking a tightrope of good taste, since Fire Island is kind of known for being a sexual oasis there are a lot of jokes in this film that involve sex in some way but it never crosses the line into being vulgar… OK maybe one joke tiptoes up to that line and you get the sense that the writer would’ve gleefully pushed even further if he’d been allowed but still, it holds back and has fun without being filthy. Hell, at times it’s downright sweet.
That sweetness is largely due to the film’s MVP, Bowen Yang. Everyone already knows that Bowen can be funny, SNL has more than proven that to anyone willing to pay attention but Fire Island proves that he’s also just a fantastic romantic performer, able to break your heart with one look and have you rooting for him every step of the way. Sure the tradition for Pride and Prejudice stories is to root for Elizabeth and Darcy (which here is Noah and Will) and you definitely do root for them here, but the one you absolutely will end up falling in love with is Howie based purely on how well Bowen plays him.
What makes Fire Island so irresistible is that it’s just chock full of heart mixed in among the jokes about gay nightlife and drug usage. It doesn’t shy away from certain parts of gay hookup culture, if anything it explains it as bluntly as possible for those who aren’t already aware of it, but those elements are there just because they’re part of the reality. They’re not the focus, the romance and the chosen family at the core of this fun-filled film are the focus.
Fire Island is gloriously gay, delightfully dramatic, fantastically funny and absolutely authentic Austen. It’s the gay Jane Austen adaptation that you didn’t know you needed but now you have it. It’s charming, expertly utilizing a brilliant cast who make the material soar. A genuine joy from beginning to end, it’s such a delight that I can’t wait to see what fun gay adventure Joel Kim Booster is going to write next.