Netflix’s “Alex Strangelove” Is Like an R-Rated Raunchier Companion to “Love, Simon” Says Writer-Director Craig Johnson

"This is a movie about sex and if we’re going to be honest this has to be an R-rated movie."

The teen romcom genre gets another gay twist with Netflix’s original movie, Alex Strangelove. It comes hot on the heels of Love, Simon (and was shot at the same time give or take a month), but writer-director Craig Johnson is quick to point out differences between the two films.

“Well, Alex Strangelove deals much more overtly with sex,” he says. “Whereas Love, Simon is more about a kid who knows who he is but is working on being public and open about it, Alex is a totally confused kid who doesn’t know which way he’s going. We’re a dirty, unrated older brother to Love, Simon.”

Alex Strangelove centers on high school student Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), a dorkish would-be zoologist whose relationship with bff-turned-girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein) is poised to go next level with actual sex. Yet Alex is deep in the closet, still a virgin, and keeps putting sex off, but things finally come to a head when he meets an older gay student, Elliott (Antonio Marziale), who helps crack the door a bit, unleashing necessary chaos in the process.

That chaos includes a cringe-y set piece during which Alex and Claire attempt to relieve the former of his virginity, a sequence that wouldn’t fit neatly within the PG-13 confines of Love, Simon.

“It would be tough to do that if we didn’t have an unrated or R-rated movie,” Johnson says. “I wanted that relationship with Claire to be a centerpiece of the movie, because I think it’s true to the experience of so many closeted gay kids in high school, they have that friend or girlfriend they’re dating who is their partner in crime. Alex is in love with Claire, but it’s just this pesky sex thing that screws things up for him. I certainly hadn’t seen that reflected in a mainstream high school movie before. We had some people say, ‘we love this script, can we do this as a PG-13 movie,’ and I was like no, no way, this is a movie about sex and if we’re going to be honest this has to be an R-rated movie. Let’s be real – most teenagers live in an R-rated life. This always had this dirtiness and Netflix, bless their hearts, said we love it, don’t change a word, cast who you want, have fun.”

Johnson, who married The Real O’Neals writer Adam Roberts in 2015, admits that although he shopped Alex Strangelove around at traditional studios, he failed to find a home for it, and not due to its gay content. “It was because there weren’t roles for adult movie stars,” he explains. “Its all kids. The wonderful thing about Netflix is their business model doesn’t require them to have movie stars. I’m so thrilled the original film was invented, or this might not have been made.” Ben Stiller, who came on the film as a producer after receiving the script through another producer, Nicholas Weinstock (who worked for Stiller’s Red Hour), proved an asset while sharing smart notes with Johnson.

Writer-director Craig Johnson

Johnson previously directed the 2014 dysfunctional siblings dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, in which Bill Hader the played gay brother to Kristen Wiig, and a 2017 adaptation of Daniel Clowes graphic novel, Wilson. He actually wrote the first draft of Alex Strangelove back in 2008 but kept revisiting and updating it to reflect modern teenage life, including today’s comparatively open, progressive attitudes towards sexuality.

“One of the aspects of the movie that’s really central is that Alex’s struggle with his sexuality is not because his school will ostracize him or he’ll get beaten up or his parents will reject him,” Johnson explains. Avoiding spoilers, the reason for Alex’s fear of coming out is revealed late in the movie. “It makes the conflict much more internal, and is a new twist on what’s confusing about sex and dating in high school in 2018 where there are so many new options, which actually makes it harder because you have to know what you want.”

Also reflecting today’s more open society – and in another parallel to Love, SimonAlex Strangelove features openly gay actors, including Marziale (web series The Gay And Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo; Altered Carbon), Jesse James Keitel (“He came into audition in full makeup and was so fabulous we said not only do you have this role, but please come in your makeup and we’ll just enhance it,” Johnson says), and Atypical’s Nik Dodani, who will also appear in CBS’s upcoming Murphy Brown revival, as Alex’s deadpan friend Blake.

Alex Strangelove ends with a mosaic of real coming out video testimonials from teenagers, which a dedicated team of production staff and interns spent hundreds of hours scouring YouTube and the internet for. With two mainstream films this year (plus several indies like Saturday Church and Freak Show) giving high school romcom comedies a queer twist, Johnson says he hopes that eventually we see every Hollywood genre get an LGBTQ treatment. “I hope we get to a point where we don’t even think of them being ‘queered,’” he says. “That you go to a romcom and there’s a gay lead, and it doesn’t feel like a niche LGBT movie—that it’s just a romcom. Let’s see a Marvel superhero who saves the world and goes home to his boyfriend.”

For his own next project, Johnson plans to revisit 1980s style monster-comedy films like Gremlins and Ghostbusters with Nasty Little Suckers – about small killer octopus creatures – and is also trying, with Fred Armisen, to make a documentary about seminal party band, the B-52s. “They have an incredible story that I think needs to be told – they need to be reintroduced to this generation.”

Alex Strangelove premieres Friday June 8 on Netflix. Here’s the trailer:

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.