What little I knew about New York’s Fire Island (which runs parallel to the south shore of Long Island) before seeing director Andrew (Driveways, Spa Night) Ahn’s new film of the same name is that it was a mecca for gay culture in the 1970s, when drugs, partying, and sex seemed to go hand in hand. I’d always imagined it to be a place where judgment and prejudice were forbidden, but what I learned from the movie Fire Island is that the only thing some of the men who frequented the resort weren’t judged on was their being gay. Written by one of the film’s stars, stand-up comic Joel Kim Booster, the movie is something of a modern-day rom-com that examines the current multicultural state of gay culture, as well as elements of the island’s party scene that have changed since the 1970s. But it’s also a reminder that racism, classism and body shaming are very much a part of queer life, even today.
Inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (emphasis on the Pride), the story focuses on Booster’s Noah and his best friend Howie (SNL’s Bowen Yang), who bring a group of diverse and quite funny friends with them to live in a house run by de facto den mother Erin (Margaret Cho). Howie is a bit of a shy nerd but he’s also a hopeless romantic, and he comes to Fire Island looking for love, while Noah is there to party and have sex for as many hours in a day as he can stay awake. But because he supports Howie’s quest for romance, he vows not to have sex until Howie is well on his way to meeting someone special on this trip (a vow he immediately regrets when he realizes that Howie likes to take things slowly). Some of the most effective moments in Fire Island are when the filmmakers are worried less about the plot and more about just hanging out with this eclectic bunch, listening to them discuss their theories about the place, how it has changed, and what it represents.
When the group gets invited to a house party of some well-off people they meet in town, they are instantly treated like trash because they aren’t all ripped (except for Booster), many of them are of Asian descent, and they raid the food and bar like locusts. But both Howie and Noah meet people there who hold special meaning to them as the film goes on. Conrad Ricamora plays Will, an attorney who seems to disapprove of just about everyone who wants to do nothing more than party. But it turns out his protective nature comes from an honest place, and Noah begrudgingly takes an interest in him during the course of their stay.
Lest you think Fire Island is some sort of chaste affair (as the Austen inspiration might imply), some of the party sequences get downright graphic, and certainly several of the frank conversations among the friends get pretty specific about things they have done or would like to do. These moments serve as a friendly reminder that this beach vacation isn’t all about relaxation. In real life Booster and Yang have been friends for years, and above all other things, the film serves as a lasting tribute to these two Asian-American comedy performers whose friendship has served as a two-person support network that has resulted in both moving into the spotlight in various ways over the years. (Booster has a new Netflix special debuting later this month, while Yang has become one of the brightest new stars on SNL in the last couple of years.) When the film slows down enough to let these two interact, it elevates other moments that sometimes feel more predictable and familiar. Also, it’s clear that many of the actors have personalities but just not a great deal of experience, and while I’d love to hang out with them, I’m not sure how effective they are at conveying emotion in some of the film’s more serious moments.
At the end of the film, there’s a sense that this might be the last time this particular group makes it out to the iconic Pines in this combination, and there’s a bit of melancholy that hits harder than I thought it would. But perhaps the connections made on this particular trip make the need for partying and hooking up less important, and what we’re actually seeing in Fire Island is a coming-of-age story. It’s difficult to imagine some of these characters fully growing up, but that seems to be the direction in which they’re heading. And that journey is a genuine highlight of the film.
The film is now streaming on Hulu.
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