Netflix’s adaptation of Alice Oseman’s creation is a heartfelt and giddily effervescent tale of two teenage boys falling in love with each other
Starring Kit Connor, Joe Locke, William Gao, Yasmin Finney, Corinna Brown, Kizzy Edgell, Tobie Donovan, Rhea Norwood, Jenny Walser, Sebastian Croft, Cormac Hyde-Corrin, Fisayo Akinade, Chetna Pandya, Stephen Fry, and Olivia Colman
Being a teenager is tough. It just is. The entire universe of possibility lies stretched out before you, but you’re stuck at a crossroads not knowing which path to take. Though unencumbered by adult responsibilities, there’s plenty else to occupy. The sheer pressure of school life and relationships with peers, for one. It’s a period of life characterised by awkwardness and uncertainty: the brain a frothing cocktail of hormones as you try to balance appeasing those around you and what is expected of you, whilst also trying to determine what it is that you want and how the two can possibly reconcile.
By no one is this more keenly felt than by queer teenagers. The world is a far more accepting – though by no means perfect – place now, but that does not remove the anxieties and insecurities that come from growing up queer in a heteronormative society. Never seeing oneself represented in mainstream media has the effect of making queer feelings seem isolating. Constantly dogged by a feeling of otherness, regarding peers with jealousy as they can pursue romantic entanglements without any additional worries or concerns. Feeling unworthy and lesser than those who surround you. By no means an exclusive experience during puberty, it overwhelmingly characterises the queer experience. Fortunately, it’s shows like Heartstopper that can have a profound effect upon that and there’s no understating the transformative effect that this show, and shows like it, will have upon teenagers who see themselves reflected in its storytelling. And for those queer adults watching it, it’s a healing conversation with the inner teenager you’ve desperately tried to leave behind.
Heartstopper pulls off a tricky balancing act of displaying and giving voice to the difficulty and hardships faced by queer youth but also producing a genuine, heartfelt, wholesome and feel-good tale of queer love and found family. It does not shy away from moments of homophobic bullying, or glimpses of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, such as conversion therapy or anti-gay marriage legislation, but it does not let this experience mar the abundance of queer joy. The story truly places the queer experience centrally, in one of the most realistic depictions of the teenage queer experience on screen.
It’s such a simple word.
Any number of incredible scenarios can spring from such a simple utterance.
That’s precisely how Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick’s (Kit Connor) love story commences. With “hi”. Truly demonstrating the power of seating plans everywhere, Charlie and Nick are thrown together in their form group, sending them on an intense, beautiful journey of self-discovery based on writer Alice Osman’s graphic novel series of the same name.
To look at them, Charlie and Nick probably could not be more opposite. Drum-playing, gaming nerd Charlie returns to Truham Boys School after an intense period of homophobic bullying following his outing. Unassuming and almost apologetic for his own existence, Charlie shrinks into himself, with only a small core group of friends: namely, Tao (William Gao) – his token straight friend – and Isaac (Tobie Donovan), who never seems to be without a book. Charlie is longing for love. Not asking for the world. Just somebody who is nice, and somebody who likes him. It’s just that simple sometimes.
On the other side of the spectrum is rugby star Nick. Popular and effortlessly charming, Nick draws the spotlight which Charlie retreats from. Described aptly by Tao as “a golden retriever”, Nick is an energetic whirl of wholesome energy. A thoroughly unthreatening, caring guy, despite the droves of toxic masculinity-infused morons that he is surrounded with. Yet, Nick is not nearly as self assured as he appears, and feels pressure to play up to a role that has been assigned to him by others. It’s the safe space provided by Charlie, who is far more unapologetic about who he is, that provides Nick room to truthfully express himself.
The catalyst for the pair’s burgeoning romance comes off the back of a rescue. Forced into a covert romance by the closeted Ben (Sebastian Croft), Charlie attempts to end things, especially after discovering that Ben has a girlfriend. Forcing himself upon Charlie and telling him that nobody else would want to be with him, Nick fends Charlie off and offers support to his friend, paving the way towards a close friendship that Charlie’s friends try to warn him away from.
Heartstopper is not the first queer coming-of-age story, of course. There will be natural comparisons drawn to Love, Simon or Sex Education or indeed Riverdale or Euphoria, all of which tackle teen sexuality. Unlike these, however, Heartstopper is thoroughly wholesome. It demonstrates that everybody is worthy of, and can have a love that they can be proud of, and a life that’s overflowing with happiness, in spite of the negativity that an overwhelming percentage of queer youth is exposed to.
Principally, Heartstopper centralises the queer experience and feels a far more truthful depiction than what has come before. Instead of queer characters merely serving as tokenistic, caricatured side-characters whose main purpose is to enhance the cis-gendered straight main character’s journey, Heartstopper celebrates all sectors of the community, creating the sense of found family through Charlie’s friend Elle (Yasmin Finney), who has transferred to neighbouring girls school Higgs after coming out as transgender, and Higgs’ resident lesbian couple Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell). To queer viewers, this feels intensely familiar, surrounding themselves with other people who are aware of the queer experience.
In contrast to previous depictions of teenage sexuality, Heartstopper may also appear to be far less adult, though it by no means skimps on displays of physical intimacy. Cinematographer Diana Olifirova brings these moments into vibrant existence, such as Tara and Darcy’s first unapologetic kiss on a dancefloor at a party, to the intimacy of the close-ups on Nick and Charlie’s faces as they approach their first kiss, or indeed when they passionately lock lips in the rain. While some viewers may complain at perceived chasteness (though they should be reminded that Charlie’s character is only 15), this makes Heartstopper’s significance and power only greater, allowing its message to be internalised by even younger viewers and reinforcing the messaging that it is possible to be loved and to be happy whilst also being queer, which for many questioning teenagers can feel like an impossibility, especially if they face ostracisation from the peers or family. To have as tremendous a reach as Netflix is also massively impactful considering the recent rise in global anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.
One of the most heartwarming things about Heartstopper is how little the plot is dictated or weighed down with trauma. Though there are elements of Charlie’s character that are impacted by his history with bullying, the focus on the plot is his romance with Nick and how that enriches and boosts him. The positive always outweighs the good. Similarly, Nick’s story is not about the hardships of coming out, but rather on how much he likes Charlie and enjoys being with him. Elsewhere, Elle’s story is not about her transition but rather about how she builds friendships in her new school and the development of her feelings towards friend Tao.
The writing is consistently on top form, painting a realistic view of the teenage British experience. The choice to use online messaging as a key component in the character’s communication is wonderfully achieved, as it permits the audience further insight into the character’s minds as we see which messages they consider sending compared to the ones that they actually do.
Another stylistic quirk is the inclusion of cute moments of animation – a nod to the style of the comics – which zip around the screen in moments of high emotion, giving a visual to the internal workings of the character’s minds and the jittery, electric feeling that surges through one’s veins when taking the first, tentative steps into the scary, enticing world of romance. These sections truly give moments an epic feel, causing the audience to hold their breath in anticipation, as if the entire world has stopped. This sense of timeless, overwhelming giddiness is also echoed within Adiescar Chase’s score and the pop soundtrack which massively enhances the mood without distracting from the action.
Much of the success also sings through the winning portrayals of all of the cast, but especially Connor and Locke. The dynamic between the two is delicious and their rapport is thoroughly sweet and infinitely watchable. The way that Charlie and Nick breathe life into each other is just stunningly achieved. An additional mention should go to Olivia Colman, for her surprise, perfectly pitched appearance as Nick’s mother whose reaction to him coming out is perfectly written and performed, in a way which many audience members will be wishing they had experienced themselves.
Lovingly created by a queer team that intentionally used authentic casting, Heartstopper truly feels like a show which understands what it is like to be queer. It is immensely powerful for the next generation, and also for older queer viewers, providing a sense of healing and an uplifting statement on the bright possibility of the future. For many people watching, to have a romance like Nick and Charlie’s would have felt unfathomable but makes the journey of these characters all the more gloriously touching and freeing. It shouldn’t be notable to tell a story in which there are many queer characters are happy and in love and fulfilled – and that is precisely why Heartstopper is so timely whilst also being so overdue. Because there is nothing as fearless, explosive, intense or beautiful than queer love.
Heartstopper is streaming now on Netflix.