#209: HEARTSTOPPER, OR SOLVING THE FRED AND GINGER PROBLEM. In the RKO musicals done with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the thirties the situation of straight romantic movies was graven in stone: boy met girl, boy danced with girl, romance interruptus, boy and girl reunited. The resolution was never in doubt: if dance was a metaphor for emotional connection, any movie in which two people who could dance together like Astaire and Rogers did not end up together would have been a cosmic cruelty. The problem was to stretch the story out to something of proper dramatic form or, more accurately, the hour and a half of standard feature film length. This meant a variety of plot inventions that always had sore feet even before they became clichés: unresolved divorces, inextinguished old flames, confused identities, sometimes just plain old muleheadedness. Some of these delaying tactics were worse than others, but there was always a lot of gabble before the orchestra started warming up again.
Netflix has recently imported the eight-part British streaming series “Heartstopper,” based on Alice Oseman’s wildly successful online comic. It was enhaloed in the British press as an enormous step forward in LGBTQ+ representation: it asked the audience to receive a show aimed in part at younger viewers that was an outrightly heartwarming story about a gay crush ending in reciprocated affection. “Heartstopper” tripped past, without so much as a by-your-leave, the old convention that a gay romance had to be an exercise in sturm und drang as well as rejection and misery. It featured a noted dramatic absence of drugs, booze, sex and swearing—it was, God save us, wholesome.
It will be, I suppose, in some peril of getting discussed and judged purely in terms of the issues of gay representation, even if the judgement is likely to be friendly. Upon arrival it was almost in danger of being swamped in praise: Rebecca Nicholson in the Guardian called it “possibly the loveliest show on tv,” and wrote “it leaves the sensation of being on the receiving end of a solid hug.” Cynic that I am, I rush to say that “Heartstopper” is not the kind of heartwarming that makes you want to run for a bottle of gin or mouthwash after viewing it; quite the opposite. Oseman oversaw the adaptation, which keeps it crisp and vivid, and the director Euros Lyn blends a group of largely first-time actors with a few old pros—Olivia Coleman, for one, whom I would cheerfully watch sleep on a couch, and, yes, that’s Stephen Fry voicing the eupeptic bleat of the school principal. The story’s source as an online comic bounces into the visuals, ever so lightly used: split screens, animated background touches, an abortive touching of hands that throws off sparks and buzzes.
The two protagonists are Charlie (Joe Locke), much given to apologizing for existing and who’s been outed before the story begins, and Nick (Kit Connor), the rugby team stalwart, whose friends are all trying to fix him up with an appropriate girl. As the two become friends they complete the full cinematic catalogue of romantic activities: taking selfies together and texting each other practically by the minute, right down to snowball fights and doing snow angels. The trick is that while they’re doing this Charlie has no idea whether Nick is anything but a “ginormous heterosexual,” as one of Charlie’s worried friends puts it. Charlie’s confidence has been torn up by bullying and plagued by a boy who’s perfectly happy to do a bit of snogging in a deserted classroom but who cuts him nasty in the halls. Charlie’s the fastest runner in the school; he can outrun anything, but emotionally he’s flanked on both sides by uncertainty and frustration.
Nick, unbeknownst to himself, is bisexual (speaking of underrepresented groups), and he’s a bit blindsided by what he feels for Charlie. Here’s where “Heartstopper” dances over the outlandish mechanics of the old straight romances. The plot progress in “Heartstopper”—organic to the characters—is in Nick not only understanding his emotions but expressing them, and learning to dismantle his social identity as a straight boy. In turn, his hesitation, his confusion, only plays into Charlie’s quandary, as Charlie is already anxious to be with someone who will acknowledge him. There’s a lovely (sorry, that’s the word) epiphany for Nick when, at a friend’s birthday party, he sees two female friends, a couple who have decided to come out, laughing and kissing on the dance floor. He’s seeing a door blown open, and it’s where he wants to go.
Back to representation. Along with the gay and lesbian characters (Tara and Darcy are an interracial female couple, played by Corinna Brown and Kizzy Edgell—one worries about her French pronunciation, the other starts food fights) “Heartstopper” casually slips in a trans female character, and got brownie points for bothering to find a trans female actress, Yasmin Finney; and for not erasing an Asian character, actually played by an Asian actor, William Gao (Chinese, in both cases). If all this being commented on makes you roll your eyes, remember that it is in living memory (the 1990s) that a movie almost got made casting Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman. The idiot past is forever at our heels.
(There is also one character invented for the show, Isaac (Tobie Donovan), who doesn’t seem to be representing anything, but who makes himself a felt, endearing presence almost without any dialogue. It’s worth watching the series just to hear his cheerfully assuming delivery of the line, “Am I…interrupting?”)
Among the praise for “Heartstopper” was a short, felt sigh from Owen Jones, also in the Guardian, regretting that he did not have a show like “Heartstopper” to see when he was growing up, and I suspect that this will be common to older gay viewers. And while I’ve wanted to emphasize that “Heartstopper” is handsomely crafted, well acted and shows the care of a genuine passion project, I also can’t help but think happily about the probable good it will do for younger viewers of all stripes, now while the papers are reporting new waves of school boards removing the supposed depravities of gay-themed books from libraries. “Wholesome” can be misused to mean the censored and skittish view of books too polite to speak unwelcome truths; it can also mean books (and shows) that are like bread from the oven, and meals that keep you alive.