‘Fire Island’ review: Escape to a Never-Never Land full of tea and sympathy in the year’s funniest and sexiest queer rom-com [Grade: A-]
Fire Island is a bright celebration of what friendship stands for: sharing laughs and creating fond memories with your best Judys through thick and thin. But that’s only the beginning. Director Andrew Ahn and writer-actor-producer Joel Kim Booster have created the most euphoric and heartfelt entry to welcome in summer and Pride Month with the new queer rom-com Fire Island. As a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the lens of gay people of color, Booster’s sharp script and Ahn’s affecting directorial touch push the boundaries of what queer cinema has captured before. The adventure that ensues is an oft sensitive, downright hilarious rom-com for the ages.
The actual Fire Island feels very much like the movie portrays it. Once you step from the ferry onto the island, you feel this empowering aura and that you’ve somehow escaped to Never-Never Land. Time really does feel different walking past unconcerned deer along the boardwalk, feeling the ocean breeze, and greeting passersby even though that would prompt numerous glares from any native New Yorker. The location reveals throughout the film how some use it as a way of letting go of daily stresses, while others discover a personal liberation they never had, being able to heal through friendship the repressed pain of struggling to fit in. Booster even finds ways to incorporate all of the Fire Island staples to intensify the drama along the way: finding hot guys in the produce aisle of the exorbitant Pines Pantry grocery store, spotting familiar faces across the sweaty dance floor at Ice Palace’s underwear party, and belting your emotions through karaoke at Pavilion. Capturing this sentiment of the spirited sanctuary onscreen is something to be equally appreciated by new viewers and frequent guests alike.
The cast wastes no time with their whimsical jokes as they sing an amusing rendition of the Searchlight fanfare before Noah (Booster) recites- almost as a warning- the same opening lines of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” For those unaquainted with Austen’s audaciously ironic style, starting the movie with this quote as Noah pushes a hookup out of his apartment feels like the best gay introduction anyone could ask for. Additionally, stans of the novel looking for similarities won’t be disappointed as Booster has adapted Austen’s tantalizing and chaotic dating game of cat and mouse with sophisticated ease.
Noah, the secretly romantic commitment-phobe mirroring the hard-to-get Lizzie Bennet, tries to play matchmaker for his hopeless romantic best friend Howie (Bowen Yang), a loyal Jane Bennet in disguise. The pair is part of a larger rambunctious crew that has returned to the island enclave every summer for the past ten years. However, the stakes are raised when house mom Erin (Margaret Cho) announces she’ll have to sell the Tuna Way house, prompting a final debaucherous week to remember. Austen’s romantic endeavors commence at Low Tea, when Howie is courted by Charlie, a handsome doctor played by James Scully, and we get our first introduction to a shy yet preppy Mr. Darcy, here named Will and played by Conrad Ricamora. Will and Noah make eyes at each other early on, but their own pride prevents them from making a deeper connection for quite some time. The classist divide between their two groups, another critical motif of the book, becomes most noticeable when our protagonists visit their new friends’ wealthy beachfront mansion- the elegant Pemberley- for an afterparty. Enraged after overhearing an almost direct quote from Mr. Darcy about himself (“He’s not hot enough to be that annoying”) Noah yields to Dex’s (Zane Phillips) handsome wiles just as Elizabeth does with Mr. Wickham. However, that relationship goes equally awry when, even set in modern day, a handwritten letter reveals Will’s vulnerability and Dex’s exploitations. Despite the final act departing slightly from the original plot, showing the love and support Howie and Noah have for each other in their search for happiness and romance still brings about the bittersweet, lovey-dovey finale rom-coms are all about.
The ensemble is so well cast that you’ll likely be fighting over who is each of your favorites. Margaret Cho serves wisdom and humor alike as the radiant house mom. Bowen Yang, known for being a comedic superstar on Saturday Night Live, shines in a stirring performance by proving he’s equally capable with dramatic acting chops. Joel Kim Booster, who struts around half naked for most of the movie (not a complaint in sight), brings a confident charm and delivers biting wit in a deserving breakout role. Matt Rogers, part of the Las Culturistas podcast duo with Yang, is a scene stealer, nailing every line with such precise comedic timing that even Marisa Tomei would be proud. Tomás Matos embraces the essence of the island, leaving a trail of infectious energy whenever they’re on screen. There’s a comfort in seeing the group act together effortlessly on screen, illustrating the safety that friends in a chosen family yearn for.
While it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, Fire Island redefines what mainstream queer cinema has to offer by providing levity and veering away from a trauma-centered narrative. The conflicts that arise within the friend group feel organic and relatable and it never feels forced when they or the film address toxic community behaviors, such as racism and negative body image, or important discussion points like sexual consent, PrEP usage, and substance abuse.
Fire Island is a fully entertaining romp with a non-stop supply of one liners that will have you laughing yourself to tears and then in the next emotional beat, crying yourself to tears. The movie also boasts a subtle and lighthearted harpsichord-heavy score for period film lovers, and a wonderful and upbeat party soundtrack, from “Pure Imagination” welcoming the ferry passengers to scan the island like a Chocolate Room playground come to life, to reciting the holy words of “Sometimes” by icon and legend Britney Spears. Fire Island is never-ending fun that cherishes friendships and the experiences you go through together, for better or worse. While it’s a film made by gay men for queer audiences, it’s a journey that can be enjoyed and celebrated by all.
Searchlight Pictures will release Fire Island June 3 exclusively on Hulu.