REVIEW: ‘Heartstopper’ is Queer Happiness

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Heartstopper is Netflix’s adaptation of the best-selling webtoon/graphic novel series (of the same name) from Alice Oseman. Starring Joe Locke as Charlie Spring, Kit Connor as Nick Nelson, and Yasmin Finney as Elle Argent, they bring the world of this queer story to life. Directed by Euros Lyn and written by Alice Oseman, season one consists of eight episodes that take viewers through young love amongst the spectrum of queer identities in a way that feels like a cozy morning at your favorite coffee spot.

I’ve been a fan of the series for the last couple of years and my excitement was through the roof. The series centers on Charlie, a gay teenage boy, navigating his life at an all-boys prep school with his peers. His diverse best friend group consists of his obligatory straight friend Tao (William Gao), his trans friend Elle who goes to an all-girls prep school, and eventually Tara and Darcy who go to school with Elle. Through these characters, we visit a wide range of topics that are handled with a lot of care.

Charlie has a toxic relationship with a character named Ben, a boy who isn’t out yet and is ashamed to have feelings for Charlie. Elle is grappling with her transition as she transfers to an all-girls school and tries to fit in. Tara and Darcy are secretly seeing each other but are afraid of what their schoolmates will think of them if they were to come out as lesbians. Then, there’s Nick Nelson.

Nick Nelson is one of my favorite characters and Kit Connor is the perfect embodiment of him. A sweet, caring, and athletic boy who becomes friends with Charlie by inviting him on to the rugby team. Nick is the central piece to connecting everyone together. Charlie has never met anyone like Nick, who doesn’t care about Charlie being gay and treats him like anyone else. They quickly develop a friendship, and we see both our characters blossom into themselves. Nick realizes, wait…am I straight? This plotline is beautiful in its love for the show’s characters and that feels like a hug to anyone who remembers the confusing days of discovering your sexuality.

Their relationship is a giant strength of Oseman’s writing. Charlie was forced to come out in the previous year, and he still deals with the ramifications of school bullies. Even though he has grappled and come to terms with it, it’s still a source of anxiety to him, his friends, and Nick. There are really beautiful scenes between the two that literally melt your heart as Nick and Charlie experience the pain and surprises of queer youth. Standing up to bullies (some punches are even thrown at one point), being true to yourself and your feelings, recognizing it’s okay to seek help, and finding strength in your found family. As their lives grow more and more intertwined, we see both Charlie and Nick’s parents and how they each have a very great and open relationship with them.

With every instance of hardship, we are showered with warmth and joy for these characters. Something that is vital to the give and take of queer stories. This isn’t a show solely focused on pain but on existence, love, and hope. Regardless of your own personal identity, Heartstopper fosters a really safe environment for its characters and viewers.

There is a scene in particular that really touches my heart. Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) both play instruments in their school’s orchestra and have come out that they are dating. However, they experience teasing and judgmental comments about the fact that they are lesbians at a concert they are performing at. For Darcy, who has been out for a while, this no longer bothers her. Although, for Tara, things feel new and different as she is now navigating being ‘out’. It hurts to see Tara have anxiety and sadness over the fact that, while she does not regret coming out, she did not expect people to treat her differently.

My first relationship with a girl very much played out like that. I wasn’t ashamed of my feelings for her but I, also, wasn’t ready for the glares and conversations people would start having about me. To see, on-screen, Brown and Edgell give performances so authentic to that pain, confusion, and anguish feels like a sucker punch. I’ve been there. I know so many people who have experienced that. We have Darcy comfort and reassurance Tara that there’s nothing wrong with her and that what she’s feeling is normal. Nick, Charlie, Tao, and Elle come to their rescue in a wonderful display of solidarity that gave me the warmest, fuzziest of feelings. I am filled with joy at how Lyn and Oseman work together to craft Heartstopper as a show that feels like a much-needed hug from someone who knows that things will get better.

Elle’s writing and on-screen representation is really great. Elle is trans and has fully switched schools following her transition and bullying from her peers. She has a hard time acclimating to her new environment as she transferred in her 11th year.  Portrayed by Yasmin Finney, a prominent Black transwoman from Manchester, Elle is one of my other favorite characters and I’m sure she’ll be loved by others as well.

While she did experience bullying at Truham, viewers never experience that. She is never deadnamed or misgendered on screen. She is fully herself and we get to grow with her through this first season.  It’s stunning and wonderful to see such a happy trans representation. Elle is artsy and some of the show’s best visuals come from her and her friendship with Tao. Like the scene where Tao and Elle are hanging out in their old school’s art room and there is sunlight pouring in. They’re both lounging on the tables and the camera pans to really vibrant and colorful art pieces.

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Additionally, most of Elle’s wardrobe features pieces she’s hand-painted herself and she definitely steals the show. She talks about her crushes on boys and really loves hanging out with her friends. This feels like a breath of fresh air compared to other shows’ explorations of trans identities.

That sort of gentleness in the writing is carried over with everything from the costume design to set pieces. While the webtoon has a very cutesy, simple look to it that absolutely showcases Oseman’s talents, Netflix’s Heartstopper makes you feel so much closer to characters who could be your friends or feel like past versions of yourself.

Tao’s room is covered in film posters from Amelie to Donnie Darko, even a bit of dialogue where Elle suggested that Tao forced all of them to watch Donnie Darko and they hated him for it. Nick plays drums and his room showcases his taste in music. His drum kit sits in from of a trio of posters for Radiohead’s The Bends, Daft Punk’s Random-Access Memories, and The Strokes. Viewers can indulge in the whimsy of the webtoon as certain shots feature iconic little doodles from it.

We see leaves, hearts, stars overlayed Charlie and Nick during key moments that definitely made me sequel with happiness or sadness depending on the context. Even Nick’s Converse collection has a devoted scene of him trying to pick shoes out for a movie theatre outing. These subtleties will be pleasing for anyone who has read the comic. I hope this slice of our characters’ lives is enough to drive people to read Heartstopper if they haven’t yet.

Heartstopper is a phenomenal adaptation of the source material and a wonderful exploration of the beauty of queer stories. Lyn truly brings these characters and their stories to life.

I want to take a moment to boast how proud and excited I am for a whole new generation of queer youth who get to experience a show like Heartstopper. I’m so happy that we get to have happy, feel-good stories and that Oseman’s Nick and Charlie will get to reach a wider audience. The normalization of queer relationships and happiness brings tears to my eyes. When I was a teenager, I thought the end-all-be-all of representation started and ended with Glee. We’ve come a long way and I am more than excited for everyone to sit down and marvel at this show like I did.

Heartstopper is streaming exclusively on Netflix Friday, April 22nd, 2022.


Heartstopper
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    Rating - 9.5/10
9.5/10

TL;DR

Heartstopper is a phenomenal adaptation of the source material and a wonderful exploration of the beauty of queer stories. Lyn truly brings these characters and their stories to life.