Review: ‘Fire Island’ (2022), starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora and Margaret Cho

May 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Bowen Yang, Tomás Matos, Matt Rogers, Torian Miller, Margaret Cho and Joel Kim Booster in “Fire Island” (Photo by Jeong Park/Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)

“Fire Island” (2022)

Directed by Andrew Ahn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on New York state’s Fire Island, the comedy film “Fire Island” features a racially diverse cast of LGBTQ characters (Asian, white, Latino and African American) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of gay male friends, with some help from their older lesbian friend, navigate issues related to social class and race in the dating scene of Fire Island, a longtime vacation destination for LGBTQ people. 

Culture Audience: “Fire Island” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in LGBTQ romantic comedies that mix classic story themes with modern and adult-oriented sensibilities.

James Scully, Nick Adams and Conrad Ricamora in “Fire Island” (Photo by Jeong Park/Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)

The smart and sassy comedy “Fire Island” doesn’t hold back in portraying dating issues from the perspectives of gay men who are often racially underrepresented in mainstream American movies. “Fire Island” is loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice,” but the movie is bound to become its own kind of classic for how it vibrantly depicts the real Fire Island’s hookup culture and the families by choice who flock to the island for fun and pleasure-seeking. The movie’s talented and appealing cast—along with assured direction from Andrew Ahn and an engaging screenplay from “Fire Island” co-star Joel Kim Booster—will make instant fans of this hilarious adult-oriented comedy that serves up uncomfortable truths with some sentimentality about love and friendship.

People with even the most basic knowledge of “Pride and Prejudice” know that its protagonist character (Elizabeth Bennet) prides herself on being strong-willed and independent-minded. She isn’t looking for love, but she finds it with Mr. Darcy, whom she intensely dislikes when she first meets him, because she thinks Mr. Darcy is standoffish and rude. Meanwhile, wealth and social class affect how Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy and other people in their world go about looking for love or arranged relationships.

In “Fire Island,” the protagonist/narrator is Noah (played by Kim Booster), a strong-willed and independent-minded nurse who has a close-knit found family that he vacations with at New York state’s Fire Island, a well-known gathering place for LGBTQ people. Noah is single and not really looking for love, but he’s open to finding love. He’s also open about not believing in monogamy.

Noah and all of his closest friends are openly queer, and they go to Fire Island as an annual tradition. Noah’s Fire Island pals are in the same 30s age group as he is, except for Erin (played by Margaret Cho), an outspoken “lesbian queen” in her 50s, whom Noah and his gay male friends think of as “the closest thing we have to a mother.” Erin owns the house where they stay on Fire Island. All of the people in Noah’s Fire Island clique are also single and available.

The other men in the group include introverted Howie (played by Bowen Yang), who is a graphic designer at a tech startup company in San Francisco; fun-loving Luke (played by Matt Rogers); flamboyant Keegan (played by Tomás Matos); and easygoing Max (played by Torian Miller). Noah is closest to Howie, whom he’s known longer than anyone else in the group. Howie used to live in New York before moving to San Francisco for his current job. Noah mentions that he and Howie were once both kicked out of the same theater group. A flashback also shows that Howie and Noah also used to be servers at the same restaurant.

Howie is the only one in the group who doesn’t live in New York state, so Noah and Howie try to make the most of the times that they are able to see each other in person. Noah and Howie both talk openly about their experiences of being Asian in environments where there are mostly white people. As Noah says in a voiceover near the beginning of the movie, “race, money and abs” are what separate the classes of gay men—and he says that’s especially true for Fire Island.

Howie, who is 30 years old when this story takes place, is shy and inexperienced when it comes to dating. Howie (who rarely dates) often laments that he’s never had a serious boyfriend, and he often feels that he isn’t physically attractive enough to get any of the men he wants. By contrast, Noah considers himself to be a gay dating expert who’s confident about his dating skills and personality. During this vacation, Noah tells anyone who’ll listen that he will find a way to make sure that Howie “gets laid” during this Fire Island vacation. Noah advises Howie, “You don’t need a boyfriend. You just need to learn to protect yourself.”

Fire Island is home to many affluent people who throw big parties. When Noah and his friends travel by ferry to Fire Island, Noah mentions in a voiceover what the social constructs are at Fire Island and how he and his friends are perceived by certain people. Noah is well-aware that he and his group of friends would be considered “poor” by the standards of many Fire Island people, because Noah says that he and his friends have very little chance of owning property, based on their salaries.

And the race issue comes up many times in subtle and not-so-subtle ways when Noah and his friends go to parties where most of the people are white. The movie makes a point of showing how some white people at these parties stare at Noah and his friends as if they’re party crashers who don’t belong there. Some of the snobs snootily ask, “Can I help you?,” which Noah says is code for people really not wanting to help but wanting to know why you’re there.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are “race queens,” which is a term for gay men who have a fetish for a certain race and chase after men of that race for these fetish reasons. An occasional joke in the movie is how a white guy, who’s fixated on Asian culture, keeps trying to pick up Howie, but Noah warns Howie to stay away from this “race queen.” Noah and Howie also talk about how being Asian affects who might be interested in them as partners.

Noah makes sarcastic jokes to himself and to other people about the racism at these social events, but it’s pretty obvious that many of these incidents are hurtful to him. He masks this emotional pain by appearing to be over-confident and ready to berate people whom he thinks are being snobbish to him and his friends. Noah is proud of who he is and doesn’t like to be judged on his race and social class, but his stubborn tendency to think that he’s always correct often leads to him misjudging other people.

Not long after Noah and his friends arrive at Erin’s house, she tells them some bad news. It will be the last Fire Island get-together they’ll have at the house. Erin is losing the house because she can no longer afford the mortgage due to being an “early investor in Quibi.” It’s an inside joke among the “Fire Island” filmmakers, because Kim Booster was originally going to make “Fire Island” for the Quibi streaming service, which went out of business in less than a year in 2020, after a high-profile launch. Kim Booster was also a co-host of Quibi’s reboot of the dating contest “Singled Out.”

One of the Fire Island rituals is a Tea Dance party, where Noah and his friends meet a doctor named Charlie (played by James Scully), who seems to be attracted to Howie, based on how Charlie is looking at Howie. Charlie’s closest friends during this Fire Island trip are a brand manager named Cooper (played by Nick Adams) and a lawyer named Will (played by Conrad Ricamora), who lives in Los Angeles. Cooper makes it clear to anyone he meets that he’s very status-conscious and elitist. Will is quiet, and his personality is very hard to read.

Noah notices almost immediately that Charlie is checking out Howie, who can’t believe that someone like Charlie would be interested in him. And just like in a teen rom com, some awkward introductions ensue. Noah is thrilled that Howie might find a Fire Island hookup, but arrogant and vain Cooper isn’t shy about expressing that he thinks Noah and Noah’s friends are “lower-class” and not fit to mingle with Charlie’s group. Because Will doesn’t say much when all of this snobbery is taking place, an offended Noah assumes that Will feels the same way as Cooper.

At one point, Noah tells Howie about Charlie and his clique: “These are not our people.” But it’s too late, because Howie becomes infatuated with Charlie. Howie doesn’t want a casual fling with Charlie though. Howie wants real romance that starts off chaste. And what does Charlie want? Noah begins to doubt that Charlie has good intentions for Howie. That suspicion causes more conflicts between these two groups of friends.

When Howie tells Noah about the platonic dates that Howie and Charlie have together, Noah can’t believe that Howie and Charlie haven’t even kissed each other on these dates. Noah lectures Howie by telling him that Howie needs to be more sexually forward, but Howie starts to resent Noah for these lectures. Viewers can easily predict that at some point, Noah and Howie will have a big argument about their different approaches to dating.

Meanwhile, Will (who is obviously Noah’s Mr. Darcy) continues to intrigue and frustrate Noah. A turning point comes when Noah and Will both find out that they both love to read literature, and they’re fans of author Alice Munro. However, other things happen in the story that cause misunderstandings, jealousies and rivalries among Noah’s clique and Charlie’s clique. One of them is the arrival of an ex-boyfriend of Charlie’s named Dex (played by Zane Phillips), who quickly shows that he’s sexually interested in Noah. Will intensely dislikes Dex for a reason that is eventually revealed in the movie.

“Fire Island” has a contrivance early on in the movie, when Noah’s cell phone (which isn’t waterproof) falls in Erin’s swimming pool when Max accidentally bumps into Noah. And so, for most of the movie, Noah doesn’t have use of his cell phone. It leads to a letter-writing part of the story that will be familiar to “Pride and Prejudice” fans.

Although much of “Fire Island” is about the pursuit of love and sex, the friendship between Noah and Howie is the soul of the story. As a result, the performances of Kim Booster and Yang are the standouts in a movie where all of stars in the cast give good performances. If there are any glaring flaws in “Fire Island,” it’s that Max is a little sidelined as an underwritten character, while Luke and Keegan come very close to being shallow caricatures of partiers.

One of the best things about “Fire Island” is how the movie doesn’t gloss over or water down its bittersweet subject matter. The movie covers a lot of issues that are not only universal to any singles dating scene but also specific to LGBTQ culture. Kim Booster’s talented screenwriting strikes the right balance of being lighthearted and serious with a great deal of authenticity. Ahn’s direction also skillfully calibrates the tones and moods in each scene, which is not an easy task when this comedy takes a few dark turns.

The intended viewers of “Fire Island” are adults who like snappy conversations and often-amusing scenarios with characters who have very identifiable personalities. As such, the movie doesn’t treat subjects such as sex and social prejudices as topics that need to be discussed in coy or cutesy language. There’s a lot of raw and raucous dialogue and scenes in “Fire Island” that are a reflection of why people go to Fire Island: to let it all hang out, unapologetically. If you’re up for this type of ride, “Fire Island” is a very memorable and entertaining experience with a lot of heart and emotional intelligence that open-minded adults can enjoy and want to watch again.

Hulu will premiere “Fire Island” on June 3, 2022.

Review: ‘Driveways,’ starring Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy and Lucas Jaye

May 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brian Dennehy, Lucas Jaye and Hong Chau in “Driveways” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

“Driveways”

Directed by Andrew Ahn

Culture Representation: Taking place in Evansdale, New York, the dramatic film “Driveways” is about a middle-class Asian single mother and her pre-teen son who have traveled from Michigan to look after her recently deceased sister’s house, and they encounter a racially diverse group of people (white, African American and Latino) during their stay in Evansdale.

Culture Clash: The mother and son find themselves being affected by the neighbors, some of whom are more annoying than others.

Culture Audience: “Driveways” will appeal mostly to people who like low-key, “slice of life” independent dramas that have relatable moments about family and friendships.

Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye in “Driveways” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

As a dramatic film, “Driveways” does not have a lot of sweeping emotional arcs or pulse-pounding action. Instead, this quietly moving drama is more of a character study/meditation about the effects of not spending enough time with family and whether or not it’s to late to do anything about it. “Driveways” is the second-feature length film directed Andrew Ahn, who shows a lot of talent in authentic portrayals of everyday people.

In the beginning of the film, single mother Kathy (played by Hong Chau) and her son Cody (played by Lucas Jaye), who turns 9 years old during the course of the movie, are seen taking a road trip to Evansdale, New York. The movie includes montages of mother and son doing regular road-trip things, such as going to a rest stop and eating at a diner. It’s clear from the motel that they’re staying at that these two are on a very tight budget.

The movie also shows that Kathy and Cody have a fairly easygoing mother-son dynamic. Cody, who is quiet and obedient, keeps himself amused by constantly using his computer tablet. Kathy is a somewhat strict and protective mother, who tells Cody not to talk to strangers. The only tension in their relationship seems to be about Kathy’s smoking habit. Cody somewhat chastises her for not quitting smoking. She impatiently tells him that she’ll quit smoking when she’s less stressed out over their financial situation.

Viewers soon learn that Kathy and Cody are on the road trip because Kathy’s sister April, who was 12 years older than Kathy, has recently died, and April’s house in Evansdale is going to be put up for sale. April lived alone, and Kathy (who is April’s is closest living relative) has the responsibility of packing up the house to make it ready to sell.

Kathy and Cody plan to temporarily stay at the house during this process, but when they arrive at house, there’s no electricity. The electric bill hasn’t been paid since April’s death, so the company has cut off the service. But what’s even more surprising to Kathy and Cody is that when they first arrive at the house, it’s the first time that they see how April was living. She was a serious hoarder. The messy house is filled to the brim with a lot of junk, and there’s barely enough room to move around the house.

Back at the motel the next day, Kathy is on the phone trying to literally keep the lights on at the house of her recently deceased sister. She explains the situation to the customer service agent to ask that the house’s electricity be turned back on, and the request is granted.

The movie never reveals the cause of April’s death, and she isn’t seen in any photos or flashbacks. It gives the April character an air of mystery that can open up a lot for interpretation by viewers. Snippets of information come out about April, based on what Kathy tells Cody.

Because of the sisters’ age difference, Kathy and April weren’t really very close, especially toward the end of April’s life. As children, April was smart and and quiet, while Kathy says, “I was the wild one.”

The two sisters had somewhat of a falling out of their aging mother (who’s also now deceased) because Kathy and Cody ended up having to live with Kathy’s mother in cramped living quarters after splitting up with Cody’s father. Kathy couldn’t understand why April, whose house is big enough for more than one person, didn’t invite their mother to live with April.

But looking at the shocking condition of the house’s interior, Kathy is now faced with the realization that April knew how bad her hoarding was and was ashamed of it, which is why April never wanted their mother to live with her.

Viewers also get a sense of what April was like, based on the things that she hoarded. She collected a lot of knick knacks that are sold at discount stores.) And they make a pretty gruesome discovery: a dead cat in the bathtub. It’s implied that the cat probably starved to death because its owner wasn’t around to feed it.

While they’ve temporarily moved into April’s house, Cody and Kathy notice their elderly next-door neighbor Del (played by Brian Dennehy) has been observing them by sitting on his porch. Del is a Korean War veteran (which he proudly displaces on a baseball cap that he often wears) and a widower who lives alone.

At first, Del comes across as a grumpy curmudgeon who wants to be left alone, so Cody and Kathy try to stay out of his way. But one day while waiting on his porch, he mentions to Kathy that the ride he’s been waiting for is late to pick him up for an appointment, so Kathy offers to drive Del to where he needs to go. It turns out that the place where Del need to go is the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Center, which is where most of his social activities and where all of his friends are.

Slowly but surely, Del and Cody develop a grandfather-grandson type of bond. Del tells Cody about his memories as a war veteran and about his late wife Vera. Cody opens up to Del about his anxieties and feelings of loneliness. Del even lets Cody come over sometimes so they can have snacks together.

Kathy and Cody also meet some other neighbors. Miguel (played by Jeter Rivera) and Anna ((played by Sofia DiStefano) are friendly siblings who are around Cody’s age, and they introduce him to their love of manga.

Then there’s nosy neighbor Linda (played by Christine Ebersole), who makes thinly veiled racist comments about Mexicans in the neighborhood who have loud parties and have a lot of children because they’re Latino. Linda (who’s the type of annoying person who smiles to your face and then gossips about you behind your back) also intrusively asks Kathy if she can look around April’s house because April was a recluse who never invited people into her home. Kathy politely declines and says, “Maybe some other time.”

In a minor subplot, Linda introduces Cody to her bratty grandsons 11year-old Brandon (played by Jack Caleb) and 12-year-old Reese (played by James DiGiacomo), who have a thing for wrestling. They wrestle each other in yards, and they love to watch wrestling matches on TV.

One day, Cody is hanging out with Jack and Caleb in their living room while the two brothers watch wrestling on TV and Cody is more absorbed in playing games on his tablet. Jack and Caleb aggressively challenge Cody to a wrestling match. He tries to ignore them, but the persist. And then Cody vomits.

The next scene is of Del calling Kathy to tell her that Cody is at his place because Jack and Caleb did something to upset him. Kathy then asks Del if Cody had vomited, and the answer is yes. Kathy then tells Del that Caleb vomits when he feels overwhelmed and anxious.

After that Del tells Cody in a private conversation that he used to get vomit from nerves before he went into combat. it’s a turning point in Del and Cody’s relationship, and they become more emotionally attached to each other. They spend time together at the library and at the VFW Center. Del also opens up to Cody about regretting not spending enough time with his daughter Lisa when she was growing up because he was too busy working. Lisa is now a judge in Seattle, and Del is very proud of her, because he shows Cody a newspaper clipping of her when they’re at the library.

“Driveways” screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen lets viewers know in subtle and quiet moments that Del and Kathy are on similar emotional journeys as they look back on relationships with family members and feel remorseful about how they could have done things differently. It’s through these emotional journeys that decisions will be made that impact the futures of these Kathy, Cody and Del.

Chau, Dennehy and Jaye demonstrate in beautifully understated ways in their facial expressions (without over-emoting) what regret of family relationships feels like and how letting go of pride and resentment can start the healing process. The movie wisely resisted gimmicks of creating a controversy in the story or putting in familiar tropes such as making the Del character an Ebenezer Scrooge type. Instead, because the characters in “Driveways” are ordinary people, viewers can see more of themselves and their family members in these character. “Driveways” doesn’t hit people over the head with any preachy messages but it definitely will remind people about how important it is to make the most out of the time spent with friends and loved ones.

FilmRise released “Driveways” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on May 7, 2020.

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