A sharp, intelligent, and character-driven LGBTQ riff on Austen, Fire Island is one of the best things to happen to the rom-com genre in a minute.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In Andrew Ahn’s LGBTQ rom-com Fire Island, writer and star Joel Kim Booster affectionately takes Jane Austen to task on her maxim, reconfiguring Pride & Prejudice for men who neither have fortunes nor want wives. Booster plays Noah, an analog for Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and a thoroughly working-class gay man, trying desperately to get his friend Howie (Bowen Yang) laid and enjoy what may be their last holiday together on Fire Island. When Noah and Howie meet Will (Conrad Ricamora) and Charlie (James Scully), both of whom are significantly wealthier than themselves, their flirtations expose the emotional turbulence and political contradictions of the gay community.
Following the late-’90s/early-’00s trend of adapting classic texts into above-standard rom-coms (think 10 Things I Hate About You or Clueless), Booster’s script ably faces the challenge of transforming what was already a universally beloved work, and his adaptational work is nothing short of meticulous. Not a single detail is left unconsidered, and Booster’s sardonic sense of humor ensures that Austen never loses her edge, even when filtered through a secondary voice. Representation for its own sake is not the name of the game here — though Booster is careful to make reference to the range of sexuality and relationship structures within the gay community — and Fire Island never once indulges in any kumbaya, all-for-one fantasy of gay solidarity for the sake of maintaining a light tone. Instead, Booster and Ahn translate Austen’s fixation on money into a fierce desire for currency, be that the literal, financial kind, or the currency of whiteness, masculinity, youth, or conventional attractiveness. Austen’s sharp eye for the nuances of social stratification is on display here, but Booster takes Noah’s resentment slightly further than Lizzie’s, with a performance that practically simmers with resentment not of his own station, but of the institutions that put him there. Fire Island is a film with infinite love but not-so-infinite patience for the gay community, touching on the anti-Asian bigotry and obvious class structure that has been reproduced within its walls, and offering something that feels startlingly and lovingly honest.
Beyond its carefully considered social commentary, Fire Island nails the other crucial aspect of adapting Austen — her characters. The Bennett sisters here are transformed from the original all-female ensemble into a more modern take on “sisterhood,” namely a group of gay men who choose each other as family, declaring each other sisters and thoroughly queering Austen’s original. The five actors form one of the most memorable “Bennett” ensembles in film, and seem so naturalistic with one another that the group genuinely give the impression of family, with all the cattiness, easy intimacy, and chaos of sisterhood. As for the film’s romantic relationships, Conrad Ricamora brings not only a standard brooding intensity to his Darcy-esque character, Will, but also convincingly goes toe-to-toe with Booster’s sharp Noah. As one of the more comedic Darcys of recent years, Ricamora finds a perfect balance of stoic and vulnerable, complementing Booster’s emotionally evasive performance.
In addition to all this respect for its source material, Fire Island also seems to have real affection for its own genre. Instead of playing Spot the Trope as a way of taking cheap shots at its own predecessors, Fire Island engages a few beloved rom-com cliches wholeheartedly, paying homage without ever leaning lazy. Similarly, the film actually seems interested in modern dating and romance, engaging with dating apps and non-monogamy instead of conveniently pretending these things don’t exist to better secure a happy ending. Still, the film isn’t perfect by any means — some of its dialogue and cultural references will almost certainly age quicker than milk, the film’s relentlessly liberal sensibility may grate on those who see the potential for a more radical leftist take, and the film (over)relies on voiceover narration that feels out-of-place. But given the recent dearth of character-driven rom-coms, Fire Island stands out for its willingness to actually have ideas other than the one that states pretty heterosexuals should get together. Add to that Ahn’s successful bid to make his film fun, enjoyable, and sexy, and it’s becomes simple fact that Fire Island might just be the best thing to happen to the genre in a long while.
You can stream Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island on Hulu beginning on June 3.