Saturday, June 4, 2022

Pride (Month) and Prejudice: FIRE ISLAND

It might seem like director Andrew Ahn’s style is easy until you remember how hard most other indie dramatists work to achieve much less effect. Ahn specializes in small dramas so effortlessly pulled off, so quietly accomplished and casually observant, that they never draw attention to anything but how their characters lives come to life before our eyes. It’s this sensitivity of his sensibility that surfaces small details of desire and frustration, insecurities and connection, as characters grapple with what it means to be themselves, and how to share that with others. His 2016 debut Spa Night is about a young, closeted Korean-American man (Joe Seo) who, in the wake of his parents’ restaurant going out of business, takes a job at a bath house. Ahn’s 2020 feature Driveways finds a woman (Hong Chau) cleaning out her late sister’s house, while her precocious young son strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly veteran next door (Brian Dennehy, powerfully understated in his final performance). In other hands, these premises could be obvious, played for cloying sentiment and clumsy messages. Ahn, though, sees these characters as people, not types, and the stories as rich with specific details of these particular circumstances. Informed by this earnest interiority, his deceptively simple visual style breathes with close-ups and insert shorts that bring his character’s perspectives and perceptions into clear focus.

What a treat, then, that he’s brought this sensibility to the warm Pride Month confection that is Fire Island. It’s a frank and bubbly gay romantic comedy plunked down on the eponymous beachfront off the coast of Long Island, and in the specifics of gay life in contemporary America. The movie begins with a big tip of the hat to Jane Austen, with a voice-over quoting the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, our narrator admits, not every man wants a wife. And so he’s off with his friends to spend a summer week on Fire Island, which has a long history of attracting gay men looking to have a good, uninhibited time this time of year. Once there, the movie becomes a modern riff on Austen, with its sparkling social comedy and darting social commentary. There’s even some Bach and Vivaldi to the score sprinkled in the soundtrack of dance pop.

The result is a charming movie about relationships and class, and the way the two interact in a romantic context. Our leads’ friend group is made up of scrappy working-class New Yorkers staying at a cozy little house owned by their older lesbian den mother (Margaret Cho). While there, they fall into potential romantic entanglements with rich Los Angeles guys staying in a mansion on the beach. Along the way, plenty of low-key, sharply drawn conversations about taste and race, sex and intimacy, and social media and social status are explored, teased out in a variety of contexts as characters mix it up in parties, dances, dinners, karaoke, and taxi boats. The party doesn’t stop, but bubbles along as people try to find themselves, and how to best relate to those around them, amidst the noise.

Ahn balances the dictates of a fizzy genre like the rom-com with his more realistic, character-centric approach. Luckily writer and star Joel Kim Booster gives the movie the material that Ahn’s style needs to shoot it like one of his dramas, an eye for the detail of a stolen glance, a sunset, a miscommunication. It gives real emotional heft to the usual rom-com tropes. Booster’s character is a fine Lizzie Bennett type, resolutely disinterested in a frosty L.A. Darcy (Conrad Ricamora), and more concerned with getting his shy and sweet best friend (Bowen Yang) a hookup with the Angeleno’s pal (James Scully). This sets in motion the whirling entanglements of a small town vacation, as the two friend groups keep crossing paths. There’s smartly underplayed tensions—funny micro-aggressions or petty annoyances—and barely-shy-of-sentimental romantic possibilities. A few choice subplots are developed just enough to color in supporting players’ ups and downs, too. And all along Booster’s screenplay sparkles and snaps with witty dialogue and warmly-developed characterization. 

It gets laughs by sliding past punchlines in a charmingly natural way, heightened without feeling overly performative. It is ever-so-slightly broad comedy springing forth from a relaxed and raunchy feel of reality. Here’s a movie that loves its characters and its world, even as it lets them be real, flawed, funny figures, and makes some perceptive drama from ideas about race, money, body image, and more. Still, this isn’t a message movie, and this isn’t an indifferently photographed comedy. It has a perspective, a casually, beautifully, observational visual sensibility, and it has a tight structure that drifts on its modern Austen vibes to celebrate its characters’ chances to let obstacles fall to the wayside as love finds a way.

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