"Alex Strangelove" is a confident film about a confusing time. Right off the bat, our teenaged hero Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny, "Adventures in Public School") tries to fit everyone in his high school into different species of animals, just to make sense of them all. The bully in his class is a Great White Shark. The kid who dresses outlandishly is a Peacock Spider. And although he's not quite sure, Alex thinks he himself might be a penguin. Or he might be gay. Or he might be bisexual. He doesn't really know yet.
It's a complex inner journey, and writer-director Craig Johnson ("The Skeleton Twins") brings it to life in just about every way he can. We see Alex's fantasies, we see drawings on the screen, we see online documentaries Alex makes with his best friend Claire (Madeline Weinstein, "Beach Rats") that equate high school to a Savage Kingdom.
All of these personal touches add whimsy to an otherwise familiar John Hughes-esque formula, full of awkward comic-relief sidekicks, experimentation with drugs, romantic misunderstandings and a cool, often retro soundtrack.
The story begins with Alex and Claire meeting, bonding, dating and then finally -- eight months later -- deciding to have sex. Claire has been trying to seal that deal for a while now, actually, but Alex keeps talking himself out of it, and whenever he does psych himself up for sexiness, he either sounds like he's losing in an improv game ("I'm going to sex you so good you won't know what time it is") or he falls victim to wacky, wacky fate. Getting puked on by a guy who just licked a psychoactive toad and binged on a giant jar of Gummy Worms is, it turns out, kind of a mood killer.
Alex also finds himself increasingly distracted by Elliott (Antonio Marziale, "Altered Carbon"), a sophisticated boy about a year older, who is openly gay and keeps wanting to hang out. Elliott is attractive, smart, sympathetic, stylish and endearing. Then again, so is Claire. Alex loves them both and considers, for a while at least, that he might legitimately be "in" love with both of them. Even his choice of breakfast cereals are "Heter-Os," "Gay Flakes" and "Bi-Crunchies."
But figuring it all out, one way or another (or the other), is going to bring about a dramatic change, and change is scary. "Alex Strangelove" captures that anxiety all too well. It takes place at a time when every decision we make, and every realization we come to, has huge ramifications for our future, our present and might even force us to reevaluate our past.
And while Alex's external circumstances aren't particularly momentous (his biggest concern is whether or not he'll get into Columbia, and what we wouldn't all give to have that problem), Doheny's emotionally open-faced performance reveals just how seriously he's taking his coming-of-age experience. Doheny knows how to tell a joke, and he also knows how to sink into existential ennui, and Johnson's screenplay takes him through all the points in between.
"Alex Strangelove" hits some sour patches in the middle. Although Alex, Claire and Elliott feel like real human beings, many of the supporting players come across like jokes. Daniel Zolghadri ("Eighth Grade") plays the platonic ideal of the teen comedy sidekick role, with climactic moments of sensitivity that don't quite compensate for just how broadly he's written the rest of the time. And incidental characters like Sierra (Sophie Faulkenberry) and Dakota (Dante Costabile) seem to have stopped by on their way to their "Neighbors 3" audition.
But although the teen-comedy trappings sometimes become a distraction, it's clear that Johnson's true inspiration are the awkward moments in which the characters lose their sense of humor. A scene in which Alex and Claire finally try to consummate their relationship plays out with such earnestness that it would probably break your heart, whatever the outcome.
While it might be nice to see "Alex Strangelove" take different avenues, rather than rely on some of the broadest strokes of the teen genre, it's hard to fault the film's heart. It's a sweet story about someone who doesn't know what their story is. It's a funny film about seriously figuring yourself out. It's a serious film about pain, in which no one intentionally inflicts it. Craig Johnson might not have made a particularly strange film, but it's a particularly kind one, and it's worth loving.