Sunday, May 22, 2022

‘Heartstopper’ Review: The Adaptation Every Gay Deserves

When preparing to watch a new show, the cliché is that viewers should curl up, get cozy, and settle in with a drink and a quilt. Heartstopper doesn’t require any of that because the show feels like a warm blanket all by itself.

On the face of it, Heartstopper is pretty easily described: an LGBTQ+ coming-of-age romance between Nick, played by Kit Connor (His Dark Materials, Rocketman), and Charlie, played by newcomer Joe Locke. The story, centered around a group of teenagers at a British all-boys grammar school, has been adapted by YA author and illustrator Alice Oseman from their graphic novels of the same name.

That description doesn’t do Heartstopper justice. In graphic novel format, Heartstopper is an unstoppable rainbow force. Even before the Netflix adaptation released on April 22, 2022, Oseman’s gorgeous books had sold over a million copies. They can be found on the bookshelves of teenagers worldwide. The series also has a very substantial adult following, and one of the reasons cited by many fans for the story being so beloved outside of its target YA market is because so many readers across the LGBTQ+ spectrum found themselves in the pages. Heartstopper is the story they wish they’d had when they were teenagers and the story that today’s teenagers deserve.

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The adaptation could have faltered, could have been swept up in the common “Netflixization” of much-loved literature, and turned into a heavier, more dramatic story — it would only have taken minor shifts in the storyline and focus of the plot to make it so. Homophobia, bullying, and closeted relationships have all been the core focus of LGBTQ+ media for years. Heartstopper never denies the existence of any of those things. They’re integral to the story.

Netflix

But the story itself, what it is, is a romance; Heartstopper is where Nick and Charlie fall in love.

Within the first two minutes of the show, any worries about the adaptation not ringing true fall away.

Episode 1, “Meet,” begins with Charlie walking through Truham Boys’ School to meet with his secret boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Croft), only to be blown off via text at the last moment. Charlie returns to class, dejected. The very picture of a stereotypical TV teen’s bad day, he learns that he’ll be sitting with “one of the rugby boys” for the rest of the year due to a new seating plan. Then the crowd clears, and growing sunlight shines rainbows through the window behind Nick, haloing him as he looks up at Charlie and smiles. Oseman’s distinctive leaf art flutters charmingly across the screen in pastel.

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“Hi,” they say to one another.

And with one word each, the tone is set.

Heartstopper is far away from the drama we’ve become used to in shows that feature queer teen characters: it’s no Euphoria or Skins, and it never once tried to be. There’s no sex, drugs, or rock’n’roll here. (With the exception of a rather charming, innocent drum lesson for Nick.)

The whole tone of the series is gentle, sweet, and uplifting. There’s a lot of sunshine and pastels; even the snow sparkles. Oseman clearly had a lot of control in how the graphic novel was adapted for the screen, as her signature art lends a whimsical and charming layer to each scene, always reminding viewers of the show’s original comic roots. There are few serious changes to the original material, with only a couple of notable omissions. The series has used its new media to expand beyond the narrower view that a graphic novel gives by necessity. Heartstopper in live-action gives us more of the cast beyond Nick and Charlie, fleshing out the characters with the extra space it has and increasing the tension in the shifting relationships between them all by giving viewers extra scenes and context. The adaptation has added, not taken away.

One notable change that goes against that grain relates to Aled, a character from the graphic novel that didn’t make it on screen at all. He was replaced by the character of Isaac, a change that Oseman has already addressed, as they wished to honor Aled’s own story that can be found in their 2017 novel, RADIO SILENCE.

Amongst the sea of other young adult aimed shows that come out every year, Heartstopper feels radical. Sweet, endearing, and incredibly watchable, it feels unique in the way in respects and treats its tropes like adored friends, not something silly or embarrassing to be subverted or hidden.

Heartstopper isn’t radical because the characters are rebelling or pushing at boundaries. In the show, the core group of teenagers always does the right thing in the end, and they are reasonable about it, too, talking to teachers and friends along the way and making choices not only around what they want but what is best for them, their mental health, and those around them.

Can radicality, instead, be simply showing LGBTQ+ teenagers as normal, everyday teens doing their best and discovering who they are and then giving them a happy ending? Oseman said yes, and thank goodness nothing about that has changed in the translation from page to screen.

The cast is, for the most part, first-time actors, which gives the show a pleasingly unpolished feel — not that the performances aren’t fully realized, but that the characters feel entirely human, their realness highlighted by genuinely imperfect dialogue and expression that entirely suits the array of teenagers on screen. Locke, Connor, and the rest of the cast do a great job of bringing the audience into a relatable teenage experience.   

Locke, in particular, lifted Charlie Spring’s personality straight from the pages and brought it to the screen perfectly: nerdy, slightly awkward, persistent apologizer. Charlie’s tendency to doubt himself and spiral into anxiety is relatable to so many, and Locke performs it without any dips into caricature.

Netflix

Similarly, Connor brings Nick to life brilliantly, showing us an embodiment of the often stereotypical sporty, jock character that, in this case, is really just a pretty good kid who needs to be brave enough to show more of himself than what others expect. Connor’s warm, earnest interpretation makes Nick likable from the get-go, even in the midst of some of his more repugnant friends.

Watching Heartstopper, you find yourself rooting for the entire ensemble: Elle (Yasmin Finney) and Tao (William Gao) will make fans want to scream with how obviously they like each other. Finney shows us the sad-sweet ache of falling for a friend so beautifully, and Gao manages to pull off protectiveness and care without making Tao seem overbearing. Corinna Brown, as Tara, gives viewers a moving interpretation of a teen’s first real experience with other people suddenly seeing her differently — I wanted to hug my TV and tell her it would be okay, someday. There wasn’t a single performance that didn’t feel genuine. Nick’s emotional scene with his mother, played by the fantastic Olivia Colman (The Crown, Broadchurch) deserves a special mention. They both delivered in a big moment that could have so easily underwhelmed if Colman and Connor didn’t have the familial chemistry on camera that they so obviously do.

LGBTQ+ television shows can sometimes struggle to market themselves beyond their already-likely viewers, but Heartstopper is brilliant in a way that is entirely earnest, warm, and welcoming.

That welcoming feeling, how endearing it is, is the core of why Heartstopper is so important.

If I’d had Heartstopper to watch when I was the same age as Nick and Charlie, maybe my life would have been a lot different. If you can’t see yourself in the world around you, it’s hard to imagine your whole self being a part of that world in the future. It feels like there’s simply no place for the sum of your parts out there. It took a long time for me, and so many of my LGBTQ+ identifying friends and acquaintances, to see anyone onscreen who felt familiar.  

Netflix

Nick and Charlie are unique, exceptional characters while simultaneously managing to be almost every queer kid ever. And they have goals, dreams, and a community. Without any question of their worthiness, they are loved and respected. They have a happy ending.

The LGBTQ+ community, especially teens, deserve soft stories. Hope. Happy endings. Real life has enough harshness already. Sweet escapes through media are a luxury that straight romance stories provide in massive numbers. The gays are due to catch up.

One show can’t change everything for the LGBTQ+ community. But for the generation who now get to grow up with Heartstopper as a part of their cultural experience, their chances of feeling seen have increased substantially. Media representation matters; good stories matter, and what those stories leave you thinking and feeling matters.

And this story left me feeling that people — writers, producers, media companies — finally see that LGBTQ+ teens matter.

Heartstopper is available to stream now, exclusively on Netflix. No official word has yet been given on the possibility of a second season, but keep an eye on Nerds and Beyond for updates!

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