After decades of near-exclusively heterosexual and often white diet rom-coms, director Andrew Ahn and writer/star Joel Kim Booster have whipped up an incredible entry in the genre. Just this time, it is proudly gay and Asian.
Fire Island is set on the gay retreat of Fire Island in New York. The film is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, with social trappings, class warfare, and all. In this adaptation, we follow a group of gay friends (the figurative Bennet sisters) as they make their annual trip to the island, only to discover upon arrival that their house mother must sell the literal house. As it will be their last time on the island, they resolve to make it the best one yet. Obviously, hijinks ensue and the audience is treated to one of the best rom-coms in years – with an emphasis on both the romance and comedy in equal measures – as well as a beautiful exploration of what it means to be “the other'' in a community already defined as such.
For someone who’s already obsessed with the works of Joel Kim Booster and his co-stars (Bowen Yang, Matt Rogers, and the incomparable Margaret Cho to name a few), Fire Island is a comedy extravaganza. Every joke seems to land and even if one doesn’t, the charm of the stars is more than enough to override the miss. The main group of friends is so immediately lived-in, warm, and familiar from the start. It’s that quick connection to this cast that allows the rest of the film to operate at a comfortable pace, confidently aware that their dynamic alone will satisfy.
However, Ahn and Co. are not gliding by on good graces alone, for Ahn has a very deft independent streak that elevates already wonderful material. The comedy is capital-F-Funny and is allowed a wide berth to get the laughs, but Ahn never lets the sweeping romance of Booster’s take on Austen out of his sight. He hones in on the hazy summer air of the island with intent to swoon. Much of the swooning can be attributed to stellar turns as this film’s Darcy and Bingley in the form of Conrad Ricamora and James Scully, a respectively brooding and doe-eyed pair capable of making any heart flutter. Their respective moments and endings with Booster and Yang’s Elizabeth and Jane make for some of the best mainstream head-over-heels romance in some years. But the romance, still, is not what makes the film’s heart beat.
At the core of the movie is the friendship and sisterhood of the group, specifically the bond between Booster and Yang’s characters. The two real-life best friends are magic together and their undying love for each other is such an easy sell that the inevitable rough patch they go through is as devastating as any classic rom-com misunderstanding. Every romantic twist or outlandish comedic set-piece is always grounded by the genuine love the duo has for each other and their friends.
Although they together are the beating heart of the film, the surrounding Bennet sisters are just as brilliant to watch, with Matt Rogers, Tomas Matos, and Torian Miller all stealing the show at various times, each getting a laugh-out-loud moment as either a throwaway line or a showcased bit that’s worked to perfection. Everybody gets an individual “Star is Born” moment – even the criteria of reluctantly performing a powerhouse song on stage is met.
Beyond every materially great aspect of this movie, it clearly understands something deeper than just the ingredients of a perfect rom-com. I would be remiss to gloss over just how perfectly Booster and Ahn capture the feeling of emotional isolation that people can feel within their own communities. As Austen did many centuries ago with the upstairs/downstairs regency of it all, Booster takes the baton passed and uses it to examine the social stratification of queer communities.
On the island, Booster quickly establishes that there exist many different playing fields to operate on, although none on equal footing. There are the rich and white with 2% body fat who look down upon anybody that doesn't fit their criteria for socializing, and, essentially, everyone else they deem below them. Furthermore, the leads of the movie are gay Asian men who grapple with their identity within that oppressive space in a manner that rings true for anybody who’s dealt with similar animosity and exclusion before.
It’s that exploration of how it feels to be ostracized in a group that is meant to be welcoming and the devastating effects it can reap that take the film a step above its peers. And to see it so deftly handled in the midst of a movie functioning as both one of the most quotable comedies and heart-stopping romances in recent years is astounding. To see all of the above carried out by a stellar, diverse, queer cast makes my heart soar.
As a summer rom-com, Fire Island is a hit in every imaginable way, and as a tender portrait of queer friendship, it’s even better. To say that better movies are buried underneath a glossy exterior would be preachy and false and the movie knows that. Rather, it’s a perfectly layered summer hit that manages to be multi-faceted, operating as a comedy, romance, and identity drama all at once while never losing sight of any of them for another nor pretending to aspire to higher levels of prestige. It relishes in the trappings of its genres which feels refreshing in a time when so few genre films are proud to belong to the space they occupy.
Any search for something to celebrate Pride with this month is ended by it landing on Hulu. I am very frustrated it’s not going theatrical, so bring on the sequels! For my money, Emma in Mykonos feels surefire. Fire Island couldn’t have arrived at a better time this year, but I hope it stays around longer than the sun on the island where time fades and queerness lives forever.