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Based on the webcomic and graphic novel series by Alice Oseman, Heartstopper centers on Charlie Spring, a student at a British all-boys secondary school, who was outed as gay a year before the story begins. He still struggles to fit in at school and has been bullied by some of the older boys. His life changes when he befriends his new seatmate in class, the popular rugby player and presumably straight Nick Nelson. The two forge a fierce friendship, but when Charlie develops feelings for Nick, he begins to worry his newfound popularity–and his relationship with Nick–will cause nothing but pain for them both. Does Nick feel the same, though? Or is there something more than friendship between the two unlikely mates?
Most of the cast are relative newcomers, which works well for this show, as the greenness of the actors and their youth–this is a show about teenagers played by teenagers–lends an authenticity that is, frankly, refreshing. However, there are two big names you will no doubt recognize: Stephen Fry in a voiceover role as the headmaster of the girls’ grammar school and Oscar and Emmy-winner Olivia Colman as Nick’s mum, Sarah.
Heartstopper is, without a doubt, the best film or TV show about gay teenagers I have ever seen. Innocent, romantic, and tenderly wrought, it is the story and the representation that the LGBTQ community has been craving for decades. Not since Jack McPhee came out on Dawson’s Creek has a teen show felt this important for LGBTQ audiences and representation.
That’s largely down to the writing, which is expertly paced and full of humanity. Alice Oseman, who wrote the graphic novel and webcomic the show is based on, exquisitely adapted the story for screen. In Nick, she has crafted the boyfriend half of all gay men want and the other half want to be–a leading man with boyish charm, chivalrous manners, and an unyielding sense of justice and drive to protect the physically weaker but emotionally resilient Charlie. Nick’s journey to accepting his bisexuality is nothing short of groundbreaking, not least because bisexual characters in mass media are so often overlooked if they are present at all. The way Nick realizes his attraction to Charlie and then gradually comes to accept it, with relatively little angst or trauma, is itself revolutionary.
That, I think, is what makes Heartstopper feel so fresh and so relevant. While the characters do encounter homophobia, it is hardly the center of the story the way that it was in the past. Indeed, this is not a morality story about the need for acceptance–though there is some of that, as is to be expected with a story about LGBTQ teenagers–but a good, old-fashioned romance. When Nick shows up at Charlie’s house in the pouring rain? Well, that’s up there with John Cusack lifting a boombox over his head or Rachel getting off the plane. That moment will live in pop-culture history, mark my words.
Whether getting milkshakes or riding a carousel, the writers and the producers did an excellent job of positioning Nick and Charlie as less a gay couple and more as, well, just a teenage couple in the grand tradition of other iconic teenage rom-coms. Think Sandy and Danny. Joey and Pacey. Gabriella and Troy.
This is important, because for so long same-sex couples have been defined by the struggles against homophobia and societal disapproval. Our romances have been a pretext for trauma and tragedy, for exploring the oppressive nature of homophobia. In Heartstopper, however, there is no massive trauma. There is no violence against the effeminate gay boy. This is a love story first and foremost, and everything else is incidental. That should not be remarkable in 2022, but it definitely is.
In that regard, Heartstopper is an excellent measuring stick for how far we have come with acceptance of same-sex love. The premise–a more effeminate gay boy falls for the popular school athlete–more than echoes the 1990s British gay film Get Real. Unlike in that story, though, where internalized and societal homophobia routinely drives the protagonists apart, here it is but one relatively minor obstacle to overcome. The homophobes are, for the first time, in the minority.
Beyond all this, though, it’s just an excellent TV show. It is perfectly paced and excellently written, as I said, but this company of actors–particularly the young ones who make up the main cast–are absolutely fantastic. In particular, Kit Connor gives a tender and heartwarming turn as Nick Nelson, while Tobie Donovan takes what little is given to him as Charlie’s good friend Isaac and turns it into a memorable comedic turn. (Seriously, if no one gifs him ignoring his text messages, the Internet will never be complete.) And as the out-and-proud Charlie, Joe Locke shines and delivers what may be the single best–or at least most relatable–performance by an actor playing a gay teenager I have ever seen.
And that’s why you should watch Heartstopper: it’s relatable. The entire time I was watching I had a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I was 15 and crushing on the straight jock again. Our relationship was not as happy and romantic as Charlie’s was with Nick, but the feelings were just as strong.
I’d forgotten them, though, until the first animated hearts fluttered around Nick and Charlie–showing the viewers the instant sparks between the pair and reminding those of us now well past our adolescence just what it is to be 15, scared, and in love. Taylor Swift herself couldn’t have written this better. No matter your sexual orientation, that’s something we can all understand.
If this show doesn’t win Emmys, it’s a shame, because it is one of the best television shows I have seen in years. It revolutionizes the way same-sex love stories are portrayed on TV and in film, but at its heart it is just a warm and cozy rom-com in the best traditions of the genre. Heartbreaker is a modern masterpiece and a future classic. You don’t want to miss it.
This is a chaste and innocent show, though there is some mild language (and I clocked at least one anti-gay slur uttered by a bully) and some violence. It is rated TV-14, though children as young as 11 or 12 would be okay watching this with a parent.
This marks Joe Locke’s debut role. Kit Connor’s previous credits include playing a young Elton John in Rocketman. Sebastian Croft, who plays Charlie’s first boyfriend Ben, played a young Ned Stark on two episodes of Game of Thrones.