As conservative politicians pass laws targeting LGBTQ children and teens, Sammi Cohen’s “Crush,” released by the Disney-owned Hulu, imagines a much kinder world of queer high school students growing up without such outside pressure.
It’s not free of anxiety, but all of that comes from Paige’s (queer actor Rowan Blanchard) struggle to complete her application to Cal Arts and find love. Paige has no angst about coming out; her mother was delighted when she did so years ago. Track Coach Murray (Aasif Mandvi) casually says “60 percent of you are queer” to his team, with no judgment implied. In fact, Paige’s mom (Megan Mullally) is the butt of a running joke for being so overly enthusiastic about sex positivity and supporting Paige’s lesbianism. Writing about LGBTQ-themed films in these pages for the last year and a half has taught me that both partners of a same-gender couple have about a 50 percent chance of surviving to the end of the movie. “Crush” is assertively upbeat and wholesome, a world away from “Bury Your Gays” and tropes of violent closet cases.
Paige is passionate about her art work, planning to study her craft at college. She’s suspected of being King Pun, a graffiti artist who has decorated her high school with colorful imagery. (King Pun’s work runs through the opening credits.) She’s long been attracted to Gabriela (Isabella Ferreira). Called into the principal’s office, she faces a possible suspension for vandalism she did not actually commit. On the spot, she decides to preserve her good name by joining the track team. Once a member, she and Gabriela go on stakeouts to figure out who King Pun really is, but Paige’s attention begins to be directed towards Gabriela’s sister AJ (out bi actress Auli’I Cravalho).
Cohen’s background lies in online sketch comedy. She worked for the YouTube channel College Humor. Moving towards more conventional TV, she directed every episode of the two seasons of the show “Hollywood Darlings.” “Crush” does not exactly feel like a film. To some extent, that’s because Hollywood no longer releases teen comedies in movie theaters. It’s also hard to see Disney putting its full weight behind a theatrical release this unapologetically gay.
Unfortunately, “Crush” all too often succumbs to schtick. Coach Murray’s southern accent and mustache hint at redneck traits, but he’s never given much to do. But Mullally is the central culprit. Her character is totally defined by her oversharing and performative (although no less sincere) gushing about sex. She offers her daughter poppers and glow-in-the-dark dental dams, while admitting she uses her electric toothbrush as a vibrator. But “Crush” remains wholesome by keeping sex and drugs reserved to talk, even if they do get discussed. Paige’s mother warns “no edibles before school,” but Paige seems to be in no danger of waking and baking. We’re a world away from the projectile vomiting and DMT-laced cookies of “Blockers,” a queer-positive Hollywood teen comedy from just four years ago.
The teenagers are less caricatured, but “Crush” tries so hard to be upbeat that nothing much seems to be at stake. Even its saturated, extremely vivid colors are joyful. (King Pun’s artwork plays under the opening credits.) The film’s most successful portion is its last third, when Paige finally has to negotiate the difficulty of falling in love with a girl she didn’t expect to. Its heart is in the right place, and its optimism about queer relationships — hell, the future of America’s teenagers — is refreshing. But it’s so joyous that it succumbs to blandness, feeling like an episode of a middling sitcom. The lack of drama has its own pitfalls.
“Crush” | Directed by Sammi Cohen | Started streaming on Hulu April 29th