‘Alex Strangelove’: Boy Meets Boy. Awkwardness Ensues.

Posted May 18, 2018 12:52 a.m. EDT

Writer-director Craig Johnson first came to my attention with “The Skeleton Twins” (2014), his empathetic dramedy about dysfunctional siblings played by “Saturday Night Live” alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Johnson followed the well-received “Skeleton Twins” with “Wilson,” an acerbic 2017 comedy adapted from a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. His latest picture, “Alex Strangelove,” debuts on Netflix on June 8.

“Alex Strangelove” was written by Johnson, and like “Skeleton Twins,” seems to have an autobiographical element. The title character, Alex Truelove, is a popular high schooler contending with great confusion about his sexual orientation. (He’s played by Daniel Doheny, who bears a resemblance to Hader — I got the feeling that Johnson was temporally retrofitting his screen surrogates.) Alex has a wonderful friend, and eventually girlfriend, in Claire (Madeline Weinstein), with whom he makes internet videos and enlists in light cosplay for school social events. But he can’t bring himself to close any kind of sexual deal with Claire. And once he meets a curly-haired teenage Adonis, Elliott (Antonio Marziale), he starts to figure out why.

Let’s address what Hollywood types might call this movie’s logline. “High school boy figures out that he’s gay” sounds a little familiar right now because of the high-profile studio picture “Love, Simon,” theatrically released in March. (The movie will be on sale digitally on May 29.) There are a few surface similarities: middle-class milieu, protagonists who are the “popular kids,” and more.

While Johnson’s movie is not nearly as Hollywood-slick as “Love, Simon,” the kids in “Alex Strangelove” inhabit a comfortable, bright, almost candy-colored world. From the inventive costumes Alex and Claire concoct for their party appearances to the Brooklyn nightclub with a behind-the-stage window looking out on an elevated train track, their environment and its trappings are practically idyllic, which is nice, generally, and especially when you’re working out your sexuality.

But “Alex” is an altogether more raucous picture than the decorous “Simon.” It’s upfront in its treatment of teenage sexuality, with a lot of frank dialogue (although the picture sometimes suffers from the common misconception that all high schoolers talk like Algonquin Round Table quipsters). There are a few gross-out jokes that are actually funny, like the one involving projectile-vomited gummy candies.

“Alex Strangelove” is witty, compassionate and enjoyable throughout; a charming movie and in many respects an enlightened one. There’s something a little disquieting about it, though. This is the third film I’ve seen in less than a year in which a young white male protagonist struggling with his sexuality walks all over a young woman’s feelings on his way to self-definition. I don’t blame the individual filmmakers for creating narratives of their own choosing, but I do think the constant repetition of this theme could do with some shaking up.

The other film, “Beach Rats,” an independent picture written and directed by Eliza Hittman and now available for rental on Amazon Video, is not a comedy. Its main character, Frankie, is a working-class kid in Brooklyn who likes to hang out, smoke weed, and do other young mook stuff with his young mook friends.

In the late hours, he sits in front of his computer and tentatively arranges sexual liaisons with men, almost always older ones. He’s desperate both to hide these liaisons from his friends and to deny to himself what they mean. One of his tactics is to take up with Simone, a girl who, on meeting Frankie, immediately challenges him: “So what’s your idea of romance?” He cruelly rebuffs her after taking her to his home, but later, trying to save face, pursues her again.

“Beach Rats” takes place in a world very far from “Alex” and “Simon.” It is a movie about perpetual uneasiness. The threat of physical or emotional violence is nearly constant.

Hittman directs in a naturalistic style that makes the movie often feel like a documentary. But it is also spectacularly acted, and the role of Simone is played by Weinstein. She is utterly convincing both as the tough round-the-way girl in “Beach Rats” and the sophisticated, lively, endlessly forgiving Claire in “Alex Strangelove.” She makes Claire more plausible than she might have been as written, because the “Alex” girl is in many ways too good. Weinstein is a substantial talent who bears close watching.

You never know what’s going to elicit howls of outrage from Film Twitter; this month it was the lack of promotion for a new movie by John Woo that had its premiere May 4 on Netflix. “Manhunt,” which was screened at the 2017 Venice and Toronto film festivals, is his return to the contemporary action genre, where his last strong showing was in “Mission: Impossible II” (2000).

In “Manhunt,” a lawyer framed for a woman’s murder seeks to clear his name and uncovers a Byzantine network of crime. It harks back in its themes to Woo’s groundbreaking 1990s Hong Kong films. (The movie itself is a loose remake of a 1976 Japanese picture of the same name.)

Shot with a RED camera (the cinematographer is Takuro Ishizaka), “Manhunt” lends digital sheen to the classic Woo fist-and-gun battles that so thrilled us in the likes of “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled.” The outlandish plot is a ridiculous pleasure, particularly once the protagonist comes into the sights of a couple of female assassins (one of whom is played by Angeles Woo, the director’s daughter).

One hesitates to sound like Jeff Daniels’ pompous character in “The Squid and the Whale” and categorize “Manhunt” as “minor Woo,” but it’s undeniable that “Manhunt” delivers first-rate cinematic technique while skimping on substantial emotional investment. It’s still a great deal of fun. It’s a shame that Netflix did not see fit to promote it more aggressively than it did (that is, promote it at all), but we’re all here now and everyone’s OK.