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.

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