Early on in “Fire Island,” one of the many wealthy white residents of Fire Island asks Noah (Joel Kim Booster) where he bought his swimwear. “Is that from Amazon?” the man taunts, maintaining a careful veneer of innocence. In a cool tone of condescension, he proceeds to say that it is unlikely Noah would know where his own swim trunks are from, but Noah acerbically points out the name of the brand written in large, brazen letters on the man’s butt. This comical interaction, illustrative of the power dynamics at play within the film, is also emblematic of the film’s ethos.
In Searchlight Pictures’ “Fire Island,” the biting wit of Joel Kim Booster’s script deftly balances director Andrew Ahn’s gentle tenderness. A contemporary take on Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice,” the film maintains the levity and comedy that ground the source material while also updating the story with a contemporary, resonant context — particularly, within the hierarchies of race, class and influence that exist in gay romantic spaces.
At the start of the film, Noah and his best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) — along with their friends Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomás Matos) and Max (Torian Miller) — set sail to Fire Island, a hot escape destination for wealthy gay people. While the friends are not especially affluent, they are able to vacation there every year because their friend Erin (Margaret Cho) owns a home there. However, after she tells them she will no longer be able to keep her house there, Noah resolves to make sure he and Howie make the most of their final vacation to Fire Island. For Noah, that means getting Howie laid.
In true queer fashion, Kim Booster’s reworking of Austen’s perennial favorite conceives of the Bennets not as a biological unit but as a chosen family, with Noah and his friends standing in for the Bennet sisters and their older lesbian friend Erin standing in for Mrs. Bennet. Some of the film’s most heartening moments center on the enduring love they share. Primarily, this is underscored by Noah’s protectiveness over Howie, whose earnest romantic desire stands in stark contrast with the cynicism towards love shared by many of the other characters.
As expected, hijinks, premature judgments and misunderstandings ensue, but filmmaker Ahn retains a focus on the delicate warmth at the heart of the film. Often, he spotlights the gentleness of a gaze or tenderness of a touch in soft focus amid a dreamy, subdued sunset. Ahn’s lens not only emphasizes the transient tenderness of these moments, but it also crucially constructs chemistry between the actors — namely, between Noah and Will (Conrad Ricamora). Their longing looks juxtapose their piercing exchanges, during which their diverging statuses in terms of wealth, influence and proximity to whiteness bubble over.
Kim Booster and Ricamora deliver performances that mirror and complement each other in thematic adherence to Austen’s novel, serving as parallels to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, respectively. While Kim Booster captures the stubborn, outspoken nature of Noah in a markedly caustic manner, Ricamora embodies the paradoxically icy, protective and thoughtful nature that is essential to Will’s character. However, while these qualities are exteriorized well through the actors’ performances and the matter of each character’s circumstance, Kim Booster’s script at times falls short in highlighting why the dynamic between the two has stood the test of time. In opting for punchy quips that overemphasize certain similarities and underemphasize others, the parallels are sometimes more surface level than meaningful to the advancement of Noah and Will’s relationship. It is the characters’ inflexibility and analogous notions of pride that drive them, but in key scenes, these qualities are seemingly forgotten.
Still, “Fire Island” is a triumph of romantic fantasy. The film is all the more significant for its specificity, particularly in its satire of structural hierarchies within queer spaces and in its construction of genuine romantic chemistry between its leads. In an era in which the mid-budget movie has experienced a steep decline in popularity — leading to the coinciding downturn of the romantic comedy — “Fire Island” is a shining contemporary example of what the genre is capable of.