The Bittersweet Silliness of Hulu’s Fire Island
The smart new rom-com understands that vacation is not liberation.
What Fire Island, the movie, understands about Fire Island, the place, is that paradise can feel like purgatory. The smart new comedy does depict the New York vacation spot’s famously titillating amenities: outdoor dance parties whose rhythms echo for miles, ornery drag queens wearing cheery colors, physiques buffed and flaunted like Ferraris. But it also captures a stillness in the air, an emptiness in the landscape, and an ambient sense of tension and futility. In one scene, a character wakes up poolside. His friends—who, like him, are recovering from a night of drugged-up partying in their underwear—immediately hound him for gossip. One shouts, “We are so bored, girl!”
Joining a crop of movies and TV releases timed for Pride month, Fire Island is an example of how representation—that watchword of campaigns for onscreen diversity—can be a piercing, even unnerving, thing for the viewers it also lifts up. Now streaming on Hulu, the movie scans as a gay-male Bridesmaids or The Hangover, but goes light on the operatic raunch and humiliation of the Judd Apatow canon. Reworking Pride and Prejudice, director Andrew Ahn and writer Joel Kim Booster (also the film’s star) target society and the soul. The film uses cliché and wackiness cleverly, as a cover for bittersweet realism.
Booster’s Noah, a hunky and self-assured nurse who lives in Brooklyn, is the film’s Elizabeth Bennet figure. He could also be, Noah’s alarmingly basic opening monologue suggests, Jane Austen’s “single man in possession of a good fortune,” except for the fortune part, and the want of a marriage. He counsels his best friend, Howie (played by SNL’s Bowen Yang in a tender performance), to ditch his trad romantic ideals and spend their annual week in Fire Island hunting for hookups. Yet would-be hubbies still swarm. You know what happens next, and may feel impatient as will-they-won’t-they plot points—gleefully self-conscious though they are—unfold.
Thankfully, the rom-com beats are just that: beats, against which a complex tune is playing out. Filming on location, Anh tries to document, rather than stylize or sanitize, the gay-male milieu of Fire Island Pines. Here, sunlit meet-cutes can be oddly suspenseful and awkward, shaped by preconceptions and pettiness. Whether portraying the prickly etiquette that rules the hamlet’s narrow boardwalk or the price gouging at the one market in the area, the movie mostly succeeds at making a subculture’s inside jokes legible to a broader audience. The script does not judge drugs or sex, but it is attuned to the comedown, and moreover, to the what’s next that yawns between highs.
The movie is also funny. Or rather, and better, it allows its characters to be funny. Noah’s “sisters” are diverse in race and personality, and include foolhardy partyers (played brightly by Matt Rogers and Tomás Matos), a bookish bear type (Torian Miller, acting mostly in shrugs), and a world-wise house mother (Margaret Cho, giving a layered performance of vacancy). They chatter with a believable lack of pretense. At one point, they all count down as the sun sinks over the ocean, culminating in Matos’s character pointing at the horizon and saying, “I’m proud of you, girl! You set!” The line is gay nonsense that, like so much gay nonsense, implicates the entire cosmos as ridiculous.
The word utopia sometimes gets thrown around to describe spots like Fire Island, and leaving the straight world behind really can feel miraculous for queer people. But Fire Island doesn’t mythologize the place. Gay party playgrounds thrive on exclusion, with heterosexual people being the prime, yet far from only, constituency that’s minimized. Fire Island Pines is depicted as classist, racist, and superficial—with everyone lugging their own psychic baggage from the mainland. The film’s most moving story line, about the friendship between Noah and Howie, charts the uneven way people internalize oppression. Even when the dialogue gets preachy, the film stays grounded: These guys first bonded while serving mimosas to racist yuppies.
On a yet-deeper level, the movie—mining Austen’s subtext in the way that so many queer interpretations have—asks what meaningful life looks like for people who can’t play by the familiar scripts. Throw out the straight, nuclear-family dream, and what should you want? Money, sensation, or, as Noah puts it, “some gay-marriage nightmare” with “joint Instagram accounts, a French bulldog”? The thought of friends being “chosen family” anchors much of Fire Island. Yet the movie flirts with a fairly traditional ideal of companionship too. When one character asks a monogamy-adverse love interest what he wants, the answer is a gesture to two older men slow-dancing together on a dock.
But Fire Island’s happy-go-lucky conclusions feel a bit tacked on, provisional, and knowingly fleeting. The ferry back to reality is coming, and these working-class characters can’t afford to return next year. They will muddle through at home and connect again when they can. Some of this Pride month’s art and rhetoric will celebrate queerness as a pure font of joy, which it can be, but Fire Island also suggests that it can also force a hard look at life’s fundamental questions. Vacation, freeing as it can feel, is not liberation.