Celebrating Queer Joy on “Fire Island”
Picture this: somewhere on the Atlantic coast, waves crash onto a sandy beach as seagulls call and dive into a cloudless blue sky. Lounging on the sand with a friend, you find yourself lost in the pages of a classic Jane Austen novel, not a worry in the world.
While it may sound like a fictional meditation exercise, a very real moment like this prompted comedian and actor Joel Kim Booster to pen the gay romantic comedy “fire island.” “The film’s genesis came from my first trip to Fire Island with Bowen [Yang]says Booster. “I brought ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with me; this was going to be my beach read. And I kept on being like, ‘Wow, everything [Austen] which is about – the ways people communicate and fall in love across social classes – that is so relevant to what we experience on this island, with the artificial social classes that gay men have imposed on themselves.
In those early conversations with Yang, Booster says he described the film’s concept as a joke and “a bit of a threat”. But a few weeks after its June 3 premiere on Hulu, “Fire Island” has become a must-have summer staple. Produced by Searchlight Pictures, the film follows Noah (Booster) and his newfound family of gay misfits during their annual – and possibly last – week-long vacation to famed New York Island, historically a haven for people LGBTQ.
For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, “Fire Island” is far from a literal retelling of the Austen classic. Noah is quick to denounce the author’s opening lines (“A single man with good fortune must need a wife,” etc.) as antiquated and heteronormative. But the novel’s timeless themes and characters have all been updated and brought to the screen by Booster and director Andrew Ahn.
A long-time friend of Booster, the “Spa eveningThe filmmaker jumped on board to direct after reading his script. “I absolutely loved how much of a focus it had on queer and Asian American friendship,” Ahn said. “Especially after a year of the pandemic, it’s something I’ve really missed: hanging out with friends, being stupid, dancing and drinking. So, I saw that in this movie and I really wanted to bring it to life.
Barring the occasional spitting or fear of voyeurism, the antics of Noah and his friends remain mostly fun and lighthearted. However, the larger meaning of “Fire Island” is not lost on Ahn. “It’s hard to imagine a movie like this would have been made just five years ago, so I’m super excited to see it and can’t wait to see what’s next,” Ahn said. “There will always be obstacles whenever you do something about a small community. There are systemic issues. But it was worth it, because it is a very nice opportunity. Queer actors of color rarely get a chance like “Fire Island” to shine, but the actors in the film make the most of the opportunity.
Well Named, “Saturday Night LiveComedian Yang also stars in the film as Booster’s on-screen best friend, Howie, the cautious introvert of Booster’s brash Noah. Amidst his more… well, excited friends on Fire Island, Howie exudes a palpable energy that I’d rather be at home. But his avoidance of the island’s party scene and casual dating has deeper roots: a fear of prejudice in the gay community, plus a genuine desire to find love and connection. “It grew organically,” Yang says. “Joel was responsible enough to introduce him to me on the page, but then we both massaged him. Howie is someone who adapts on the outside in order to be more accepted in this certain level of gay culture. [We’re] mostly trying to wrestle with these conflicting desires that everyone in the community faces.
While the mainstream media often reduces gay male characters to interchangeable dispensers of fashion advice and catty one-liners, “Fire Island” brings some much-needed nuance. Because the film portrays dozens of gay characters, audiences get a glimpse of countless queer subcultures, even the ugly ones. “No fats, no women and no Asians”, Noah’s friend Keegan (Tomas Matos) said at one point, citing a line often seen on gay dating app profiles. In a later scene, Noah confronts a rice queen who simultaneously attempts to come up with Noah and guess his ethnicity.
To put it another way, “Fire Island” speaks to a little-recognized truth: the gay community is as diverse and as plagued by superficial prejudice as any other demographic. And if the film’s protagonists drop the occasional quip or two, just know that it comes from a place of love.
Like many viewers, actress and comedian Margaret Cho has long waited for LGBTQ representation to take this step. “We’re entering a queer story in a queer world, and that’s where so much complexity lies because you’re dealing with microaggressions for being queer and Asian American,” Cho says. She plays the unofficial den mother, Erin, of Noah and Howie’s found family. “There are so many things that we have to discuss in terms of being a minority within a minority, so there are a lot of things that have never been brought up in the film before that are really rich and unique and exciting to watch.”
“Fire Island” has to walk a fine line, acknowledging the hardships of queer and Asian American existence without allowing them to define the characters. Luckily for viewers, Ahn and the film’s cast strike that balance with a good sense of humor. Take it from Conrad Ricamora. He stars as Mr. Darcy-esque Will, a retired lawyer who initially clashes with Noah and his friends, but later warms up to their eccentric tribe. “The film shows what happens to us all the time because we are Asian gay men,” says Ricamora. “I like this [‘Fire Island’] allows us to laugh about it, but also doesn’t get us stuck in the traumatic aspect. It shows the challenges we face and allows us to empower ourselves and own our story.
The strategy may sound particularly familiar to queer viewers. Yang explains that this stems from real, lived experiences. “On set, we had a shortcut that a lot of queer people have, which is to be very vulnerable with our struggles and experience, but also not to wallow in it for too long,” he says.
For better or worse, “Fire Island” is still pretty new in that regard. Cheerful portrayals of the queer adult experience, free of identity crises, heartaches, and dramatic coming-out stories, have long disappeared from most movies (no offense to releases like “Moonlight” Where “Happy together”). “We’ve been narratively conditioned into our own suffering, and the beauty of being gay is that you overcome a lot of that,” Yang says. “These [characters] do not exist in opposition to whatever the normative society dictates, they simply exist as adults with realized aspects of themselves. It’s really refreshing.
The cast and Ahn hope to inspire more queer Asian Americans to share their stories. But more than that, Ahn wants to foster connections that go beyond the screen. “I hope audiences watch the movie and really appreciate their friendships,” Ahn says. “There is so much value to our community. It’s too scary to navigate this world alone, and so that’s my big hope is that it brings groups together.
Booster notes that the film has additional meaning for older LGBTQ generations. “We don’t get a lot of stories that are for us,” Booster says. “This movie was about showing pure joy and how transformative it can be to have a chosen family gathered around you. I want people to go away happy to be gay, because we don’t have a lot of movies like that.
And there’s no better place than the iconic Fire Island to start. “This island means so much to so many people,” Booster says. “There’s a lot of pressure to have one of the first films to center the island in a big way. I was really nervous about doing it, but ultimately I really like this place. On the contrary, Booster, Ahn and the rest of their team have created an even better Fire Island, a space that welcomes everyone, where the sun almost always shines.
This article will appear in the 2022 annual issue of Character Media. Read our full e-magazine here.