Diving into a subculture can be challenging. Using a modern-day place to tell a centuries-old tale can be even trickier. Yet Fire Island, released on Hulu via Fox Searchlight last weekend, lands a Jane Austen-sized plane on Long Island. Using the actual Fire Island and the yearly LBGBTQ+ party as the background, screenwriter and actor Joel Kim Booster tells a new-age version of Pride and Prejudice to hilarious effect. As the film’s writer and protagonist, Booster provides a platform for himself and SNL star Bowen Yang to jump to a new level of fame.
Directed by Andrew Ahn, Fire Island follows Noah (Booster) and his friends on their annual trip to the titular vacation spot. Noah meets up with his New York friends Max (Torian Miller), Luke (Matt Rogers), and Keegan (Tomas Matos) before meeting their “house mother,” Erin (Margaret Cho). Noah’s best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) lives across the country and comes exclusively for the event. With the possibility of the vacation being their last to the island, Noah vows to help Howie find a fling. However, things quickly complicate when Howie meets Charlie (James Scully) and his wealthy friends Will (Conrad Ricamora) and Cooper (Nick Adams). Soon, Noah finds himself in a whirlwind experience, trying to keep Howie and Charlie together. At the same time, Will and newcomer Dex (Zane Phillips) test Noah’s own feelings.
As a work of adaptation, Booster finds clever ways to equate the role of Asian men in the gay community to women of the 1800s. Additionally, the transformation of the Bennet women into the five men creates some exciting moments. Framing Keegan and Luke as the more promiscuous men makes them a near-perfect fit for Lydia and Kitty. Yang’s Jane gets to be more level-headed and subdued, opening the door for Yang to play the comedic straight man. This stands in stark contrast to how SNL has used him, forcing him to play to the back row to add a cast member with real energy into the mix. For Yang, the performance helps showcase a new side of his talent, and he charms in nearly every scene.
With the metaphors abound, Booster and Ahn also dig into the hookup culture perpetuated by Fire Island as an experience. There are certainly some graphic sex scenes, but nothing as lude as other representations of gay club culture. This does take away from the authenticity, but as one of the first LGBTQ+ comedies funded by a major studio, it is clear some compromises had to occur.
One can certainly argue that Fire Island stumbles in a few places regarding representation. The lone black member of the group often finds themselves on the outskirts of the group. This partially comes from the character for Pride and Prejudice that they play. Still, as Booster’s character narrates, they are the “ugly” visitors to the island. Given that Max (Miller) is the lone oversized member of the group, there are some underlying issues regarding body image within the community.
This might have been a positive aspect of Booster’s script, except he refers to the whole group as the ugly members of the culture, including himself. None of the core five characters would be considered unattractive. Even as a straight male critic, I recognize an attractive man when I see them. Whether Booster is being modest or, body-shaming issues have broken our brains, calling these five unattractive leaves little hope for the rest of us.
Fire Island succeeds on most levels and serves as a pleasing adaptation. With a fun core cast and a fantastic romantic turn by Ricamora (who steals this movie with his awkward sexuality and legitimate charm), Fire Island delivers a great time. Using a traditional text like Pride and Prejudice puts the film in some storied company, but thanks to Ahn’s exquisite direction and the fleshed-out relationships, Fire Island more than holds its own.
Alan’s Grade: 7 out of 10