Fire Island: This Would Be Nothing If You Really Liked Him, by David Bax
First off, I’ve never read any Jane Austen so, even though I recognized the famous Pride and Prejudice quote about universally acknowledged truths that’s repeated in the opening narration of Andrew Ahn‘s Fire Island, I might not have clocked that the movie was a modern retelling of that novel’s plot if I hadn’t known it beforehand. But I’ve absorbed enough about Austen over the years to know that part of the appeal of her writing is that it offers an understanding–partially sympathetic and partially critical–of a certain set of people in a certain place and time. Joel Kim Booster, Fire Island’s screenwriter and, as its star, supplier of that narration, adopts a similarly anthropological method in welcoming the wider population to discover the gay vacation destination of the title.
One major element of the island’s culture, it would seem, is the question of economics. Like many desirable vacation spots, staying on Fire Island is not cheap. Noah (Booster) and his group of friends are only able to afford their annual trip because of a lucky pal (Margaret Cho) who managed to buy a house at which they can stay for free. Complications surrounding the issue of class arise, then, when both Noah and his best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) strike up relationships (somewhat flirtatious and somewhat contentious) with members of another, much wealthier, group of vacationers.
This tension ups the stakes but, as is so often the case with a good story, it also increases the potential for comedy. Noah’s insecurities about his financial status and the respectability level of his similarly situated friends, not to mention his defensive assumptions about Will (Conrad Ricamora) and his cohorts, are as much a source of laughs as pathos. Add to that the characters’ tendency to talk in movie quotes in a way that’s actually funny (“Way harsh, Tai.”) and not just there to trigger a stimulus response via recognition and you get a consistently hilarious movie.
Flat out comedy is new territory for Ahn. It’s not that there weren’t laughs in his two previous features, Spa Night and Driveways; on the contrary, there were plenty of pricelessly awkward and silly human moments in those films. But both would safely be filed under drama in your local video store.
And yet, there’s still so much of the director to be found here. His love of the island itself, both its nightlife and its wildlife (a quiet and lovely shot of a deer wandering on a hiking path is as memorable as the gleeful ribaldry on display) evokes the verdant exurban setting of Driveways. And Spa Night was another, much different tale of the specifics of being a gay Asian man. Despite the film’s packaging as a Pride Month streaming romp–which it totally is–this is still the work of an auteur. Ahn even shoots in that artsiest of aspect ratios, 1.66:1. Fire Island fits perfectly into the director’s established mode of exploring how personalities interact with the environments in which they find themselves.