From its opening moment, Fire Island ensures its viewer is aware that it is a Jane Austen adaptation. In voiceover, Noah (Joel Kim Booster) recites Pride and Prejudice’s first line, and even goes as far as to show us a copy of the book lying conspicuously on his bedside table. Fire Island loosely follows the structure of this oft-adapted source material, centering fun-loving and stubbornly independent Noah (mirroring the sharp and brazen Elizabeth Bennet) as he accompanies his friends to the country’s ultimate gay-hub, Fire Island. There, he meets his sullen and irritable Darcy, Will (Conrad Ricamora), and the two engage in a delightful love-hate, will-they-won’t-they relationship. Meanwhile, Noah’s best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) falls into a too-good-to-be-true romance with Charlie (James Scully): Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley. Of course, Fire Island comes with a notable twist. Director Andrew Ahn has transformed a story deeply rooted in heteronormative standards and ideals into one about the gay experience. The epicenter of the film lies in its characters’ sexualities, from discussions about the unique struggle of gay Asian invisibility to refreshingly candid conversations regarding the minutiae of their sex lives.
Pride and Prejudice is an excellent prototype for this particular story; it lays the groundwork for a multitude of relationship dynamics, and its classic structure demands that the film question the familiar rom-com norms that the novel presents. Why is the only acceptable climax in a romance a theatrical, over-the-top declaration of love? Why are preferences of non-monogamy, or a fear of commitment, so often deeply frowned upon?
Noah treasures his freedom, Howie yearns for a real fairytale ending. Noah tenaciously pushes back on what Howie refers to as a “pre-9/11 sprint through an airport.” He believes those kinds of gestures don’t exist in real life and that we’re better off without them; that the pedestal society places them on excludes those who seek out relationships that don’t fit their convention. So, when Howie falls for Charlie, one can’t help but wonder how this whole thing will end. On the one hand, we want Howie to get his fairytale ending, but on the other…would that not go against the principles of Fire Island, espoused by writer/star Booster?
The source material ends up working to its disadvantage, as Ahn falls prey to the story structures that his protagonist initially condemns. Even though Noah is intent on helping transform the notion that the only “right” way to approach a relationship is through conventional, rom-com-esque gestures, he ends up encouraging the stereotype. This, in turn, confuses and even undermines what made Fire Island such a unique interpretation of Pride and Prejudice in the first place. The novel also does a disservice to the film through its clunky expositional voiceover. The thorough implementation of voiceover can only really be justified as an homage to Austen’s narration-heavy prose, but instead of coming across as a tribute, it feels more like an assumption that the audience isn’t paying attention, given that the plot is undeniably straightforward.
Still, Fire Island is, for the most part, exceptionally well-done. Noah is a fascinating lead, one who toes the line between acknowledging the unfair beauty standards gay Asian men are expected to conform to while simultaneously conforming to those standards. Booster brings an effortless and surprising blend of confidence and insecurity, but despite his powerhouse performance, it’s Yang who steals the show. Comedian and SNL alum Yang is funny as hell, but he plays Howie with such breathtaking vulnerability that it’s impossible not to empathize with his idealistic romantic yearnings. Other highlights include Margaret Cho as the boys’ house-mom figure, an unsurprising scene-stealer who bursts into every room with a healthy dose of hijinks and shock. Ricamora enacts a wonderful refurbish of the iconic Darcy character: Will is at once likable and unlikable, cold-blooded and sensitive.
Fire Island is a breezy delight, bolstered by funny performance and luscious cinematography that emphasizes the sparkling, ethereal and otherworldly nature of Fire Island through saturated neon fixtures and outdoor golden hours. All of this proves that updating Austen is not an outdated practice. Even though Ahn might have served his film better by not feeling the need to adhere so closely to the source material, Fire Island still works wonders in exploring just how ubiquitous classic stories can be, and what transferring those stories to a different setting can do to them. In this case, the transference offers us lessons in self-acceptance, open-mindedness and the overwhelming value of friendship and family. It’s impossible to predict when something will stand the unforgiving test of time, but I’m confident that Fire Island earns itself a place among the Austenian ranks of Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Director: Andrew Ahn
Writer: Joel Kim Booster
Stars: Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho, Matt Rogers, Tomás Matos, Torian Miller, Nick Adams, Zane Phillips
Release Date: June 3, 2022 (Hulu)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.