Why ‘Crush’ Filmmakers Made a Queer Rom-Com That’s Not About Coming Out

Director Sammi Cohen and writers Kirsten King and Casey Rackham take TheWrap through the process of making the Hulu film

For writers Kirsten King and Casey Rackham, “Crush” crucially moves past the coming out stage of queer life and into the part where those who have come out can be themselves.

The co-writers, who both identify as queer, started working on the project after meeting at BuzzFeed in 2018 and starting a queer writers group. 

“We just felt there was a real gap in the culture for queer rom-coms that aren’t about coming out,” King told TheWrap. “I feel like life after the coming out moment is when stuff gets really good for queer people. Absolutely coming out stories have a place in queer cinema and are necessary and are helpful and are a part of what it means to be a queer person, but this film is so centered on the joy for us.”

The Hulu original film follows high school junior Paige Evans (Rowan Blanchard), who joins the track team in the hopes of spending more time with her crush, but who inadvertently gets paired up with a different girl. Suddenly, Paige is caught in a classic love triangle.

“It was really exciting to tell a very human story about falling in love that isn’t necessarily about coming out,” director Sammi Cohen told TheWrap. “I think for Paige, this is more than the chapter in life where she’s letting the world know about something. She’s really letting people into something.”

Paige has already come out to her mom (Margaret Mulalley), who describes herself as a single mother by choice, not by circumstance, and who also runs a “sex positive” household where shame does not live.

“I grew up with a single mom. I do have a dad as well, but I primarily was in my mom’s house growing up. So that bond that you have when you’re growing up just with your mom is so special to me,” King said. And the choice for [Paige’s mom] to have Paige on her own, I just feel like it’s something we haven’t seen a ton in films and to be a single mom by choice is something that I feel like is becoming more normalized,you don’t need to have a partner to be a wonderful parent.”

Two catalysts of the plot involve Paige’s longtime crush on Gaby Campos (Isabella Ferreira), who is also queer and who sits at the top of the social pyramid at Miller High, and the mysterious artist King Pun who gets away with leaving humorous cartoonish murals all over campus. 

“So with King Pun’s art, all the artwork you see in the film is by an art duo Good Snake, who’s incredibly talented and queer. A big part of this was Tracy Dishman, also queer, our production designer — she is an incredible force and so talented, and we talked about sourcing a lot of artwork from queer artists and were able to find an artist named Chloe. Chloe did a lot of Paige’s artwork that you’ll see in the movie, and then Good Snake exclusively did all the King Pun artwork that you see in the titles and elsewhere.”

Through a perfect storm of events — Gaby asking Paige if she planned to try out for the track team and Paige’s principal confronting her about being King Pun — Paige strikes a deal with Principal Collins (Michelle Buteau) and Coach Murray (Aasif Mandvi) to participate on the track team and avoid suspension with the promise of finding out who the real King Pun is before the end of the semester. 

Auli’i Cravalho and Rowan Blanchard in “Crush” (Hulu)

But Paige’s plan to get closer to Gaby backfires when Coach Murray tasks Gaby’s sister and co-captain AJ (Auli’i Cravalho) to train Paige for the four by four relay, which Gaby, AJ, Stacey (Teala Dunn) and Paige will run. AJ came out before Gaby did, and she identifies as bisexual, but Gaby is the more social of the two, and she has dated more people, so a lot of people forget about AJ.

“Auli’i was so into her character in such a fun way,” King said. “She actually learned how to skateboard, she got her nose pierced for the role and she really leaned into her bisexuality in a way that was so fun.”

The film wholeheartedly embraces being a queer romantic comedy, and the filmmakers are heartened by the fact that the Hulu release will allow the film to reach kids who might not have been able to see this in a theater.

“Imagining a streaming service, like Hulu, putting this movie out is so exciting because it’s harder if you’re in a flyover state or a place with a more conservative location, it’s harder to ask your parents to take you to this movie,” King said. “Imagining someone in that place that’s maybe questioning being able to watch this movie and feel a little bit more secure in their identity is so exciting because this is definitely the film that I wish I had in high school when there was only one out person in my entire grade.”

Ultimately, the approach to the film was to just embrace the filmmakers’ love of romantic comedies.

“All we wanted was to have just a regular rom-com for queer people where being queer wasn’t the the biggest thing about the movie. And I think we succeeded in that because of our love for rom-coms and all those tropes like sharing a bed, a love triangle,” Rackham said. “We love those. They’re classics. And so I think it was really great for us to just think about all the emotions that really wonderful rom-coms give us and then just how do we put that with our story, which was just naturally going to be queer.”

Cohen echoes King’s and Rackham’s desire to celebrate the idea that love is universal.

“It’s really for queer kids and I want them to feel excited and represented and I want audiences to laugh and to root for love, not just because it’s queer, but because it’s a feeling we all connect to,” Cohen said. “People aren’t just defined by their sexuality. It’s an important piece of the larger puzzle. I hope that audiences walk away wanting to be more vulnerable because ultimately, that’s how we connect. We laugh harder. We love deeper. It’s how we express ourselves and find love.”

“Crush” is now streaming on Hulu.