It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a critic watching a classic novel adapted into a contemporary romcom, must be in want of something better. Still, Fire Island may very well become a classic gay comedy, hitting all the notes an audience likes to hear. Through a series of awkward encounters, misread social cues, and shady bon mots, the protagonists (played by Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster, the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay) each find their own heartthrob. And the affectionate (if critical) depiction of life on the Pines and Cherry Grove will be appreciated by anyone familiar with the real Fire Island.
Fire Island isn’t quite in conversation with campier gay touchstones like To Wong Fu (1995) and The Birdcage (1996). Kim Booster and director Andrew Ahn have a much more sentimental and tender vision of queer love. The film has somewhat high cultural stakes around it, given that queer Asian Americans tend to receive little media representation apart from tired stereotypes. Kim Booster has said in interviews that he wrote the film in part to assert the presence of marginalized groups in a predominantly white and wealthy space. “Just because there are shitty people who want to take ownership of it doesn’t mean that they actually own it.”
“Ownership” is what Kim Booster’s character Noah must grapple with as he romances the much-better-off Will (Conrad Ricamora). Both Noah and his “sister,” Howie (Yang) are working class. They are continually confronted with questions of who has claim to another person, the standards of good taste, or prime beachfront real estate. The film is ultimately about how those “haves” relate to the “have-nots.” At one point, Noah is outraged at the high cost of goods at the Pines Pantry, a popular local market. But complaints over wealth and affordability gradually disappear as the plot leads Noah and Howie to their wealthy suitors.
The lesson Fire Island imparts, intentionally or not, is that if they are to love one another, working-class gay men must tamp down their class-consciousness, while wealthy gay men must lose their classism. (Just as Elizabeth Bennet had to give up her free-spirited independence to marry Mr. Darcy.) But is this a fair deal? At the end of the film, Noah remains a waiter who has racked up debt to visit Fire Island, while Will is still a wealthy lawyer. They end the movie together on a pier, standing as equals despite the glaring inequality. Perhaps illusory equality is the best that romcoms can aim for, though not every viewer might be happy in the end.
Fire Island is available to stream on Hulu.