LGBT Movies: Teen Male Protagonists

The 2018 film Love, Simon follows the journey of a gay teen who is blackmailed by a bully. To protect his secret Simon throws his friends under the bus. In return Simon is outed, overcomes adversity and is rewarded with a love interest. Does he deserve a great love story? Does anyone? While some critics dismissed the film as “cotton candy,” I saw an accurate representation of the self-loathing and narcissism that can develop in the closet. Coming out makes Simon a better person. Someone who can love and trust the people in his life.

Some critics have asked whether we “need” more media featuring GBQ+ cis male protagonists. (Did we “need” a fifth Transformers film?) There was a time when a GBQ+man on screen was the victim, the monster or the sidekick. I’ve been seeking new stories and posting capsule reviews on the LGBT+ thread. Here’s my attempt to compile them. First up: teenage male protagonists.

The following reviews contain mild spoilers.

Teen Romance

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Alex Strangelove. Not the bisexual comedy some had hoped for.

Alex Strangelove (2018). Alex’s girlfriend wants to take his virginity but he feels conflicted. He’s met a cute guy at a party and fears he might be… not straight. The tone vacillates between gross out farce and earnest mumblecore. The focus on male/female sex, and glib dismissal of bisexuality, are disappointing. Still leading man Daniel Doheny charms and the final scenes are very moving. B

Update: Dish (2009). Short film. Virginal emo teen pushes his experienced friend for sexual advice as they wander East L.A.  Fresh and funny. One of the few films on this list to feature actors of color. “Once I get my braces off I think I’ll start s**king c**k.”

Update: Jongens (2014). (aka Boys). Quiet track star is courted by a brash fellow athlete. He likes the attention but doesn’t know how to respond. When his needy family and a female admirer demand his time he’ll have to decide what he really wants. The director tells the tropey story with minimal dialogue and gorgeous photography. It was apparently released on the Dutch equivalent of Nickelodeon which is amazing. The expressive young actors can break your heart with a glance. Lovely. B

Rise (2017-2018)  “Siremy.” The troubled NBC series featured trans and gay characters. Simon (Ted Sutherland) is a teen cast as the bisexual heart throb in the musical “Spring Awakening.” His journey gets about 5 minutes per episode but he does lovely work. We keep returning his “gay kiss” rehearsals with Jeremy and watch as his comfort level gradually increases. He doesn’t get a “coming out” scene but by the series finale he’s clearly halfway out the closet door. It’s nuanced work in a broadly written show. B for Simon’s plot. C for the rest of the show.

Shabbat Dinner (2012). Short film. Two couples throw a dinner party while their sons “hang out” upstairs. Plays up the comic awkwardness of teen sex with none of the angst. B

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Skam Season 3. Evak 4 ever.

Skam – Season Three (2016) (aka Shame). “Evak.” Norwegian teen soap. A younger cast and franker writing than American teen soaps. S3 follows Isak, a sullen student, as he is coaxed out of the closet by Even, a mysterious heartthrob. The camera loves the actors and the director lets their scenes breathe. A wordless sequence of Isak researching his crush online had me hooked early on. The writers have interesting things to say about male friendships, “masc/femme” labels and mental health. They’ve also written one of the smartest coming out scenes I’ve watched in years. Caveats: The other seasons didn’t hold my interest and portions of the fan base are scary. Still if I can persuade folks here to try S3 I’d love to read your spoiler tagged thoughts. A

The Way He Looks (2014). Sweet romance between a blind teen and his awkward male classmate. It’s expanded from a short film and the seams show. The script throws in contrivances to keep the leads apart but when they’re together the tension crackles. A

Update: Turn It Around (2017). Dutch Short Film. Young Bram (Valentijn Avé) is scared to talk to a cute boy at a party. When his peers start a game of Spin The Bottle he sees an opportunity. The actors say a lot with a little and the director manages to make the game suspenseful in the way only teen parties can be. B

Teen Drama

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Beach Rats. So pretty. So sad.

Beach Rats (2017). We follow a closeted teen through a summer of drugs, violence and hook ups with older men. Harris Dickinson finds layers in his self-destructive character but I couldn’t handle the relentless despair. Kid you’re hot, white and living in New York. You have better options. C

Degrassi and Degrassi: Next Class (2014-2017). “Triles.” Tristan was the sort of “feminine” gay man I rarely see in a romantic role. Miles was a bisexual dreamboat with daddy issues. They could have been a power couple. Instead the writers bury them in tears, fights and tragedy. Their final two seasons are extra bleak with no happy ending to salve them. C. D if you’re sick of miserable GBQ+ characters.

Update. Geography Club (2013). Russell is torn between a closeted jock and a self-righteous GSA. Meanwhile his toxic friend Gunner is trying to score them some “b***hes” to sleep with. When Russell gets peer pressured into doing something horrible he’ll struggle to redeem himself. The film needed to get us on Russell’s side in the opening scenes before he turns jerky. Instead we get a film full of unlikable characters. C 

Handsome Devil (2016). Schoolyard bromance between a jock and a musician. The bullies assume the musician is gay but the jock never learns either way, leaving their friendship open to interpretation. Andrew Scott makes an impression as an inspirational teacher who needs inspiring. B

Julian (2015). Web series. The German YouTube channel queerblick gives queer students the resources to make their own short films. A worthy goal. Most involve pretty young men kissing and crying. Julian was one of the better ones. A gay teen is outed but find support from his straight best friend. Lots of commenters “shipped” them but I appreciated the relaxed take on gay/straight friendship. Earnest and a little dull. C

Update: Merlí (2015-2017). “Brunol” Catalan TV series on Netflix and Daily motion. Merlí, a vulgar teacher, clashes with his uptight gay son Bruno. S1 gives Bruno a gentle coming out arc and a crush on a flaky hunk named Pol. Bruno’s plotlines faded in S2 and the actor left the show. He returned a year later for the series finale and some nice closure. B for Bruno’s S1 Arc. C for the rest of the show.

Miles (2016). Gay teen joins the women’s volleyball team at his high school and causes a scandal. Fine support from Missi Pyle as his coach and Molly Shannon as his mother but the shallow script lets them down. Takes itself way too seriously. C

Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List (2015). College student melts down when her gay best friend starts dating and stops spending time with her. She’s unlikeable and he never breaks out of the stereotype he’s fighting against. Based on a YA novel. D

Speech and Debate (2017). Teens form a debate club to expose scandals at their school. The stage play focused on two gay teens investigating a predatory teacher. The film nixes the underage sex, de-gays one of the teens and focuses on the subplot of a censored high school musical. The broad comedy doesn’t land. C

Fantasy and Horror

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Boys in the Trees. Boys in red hoodies.

Boys in the Trees (2016). A bully (Toby Wallace) connects with an ambiguously gay teen (Gulliver McGrath) on Halloween. They swap ghost stories and longing glances. The dialogue is klunky, the plot is predictable and the gay character is there to serve the straight man’s journey. However the film contains gorgeous, dream-like imagery and McGrath’s performance absolutely wrecked me. The trailer suggests a thriller but the film is going for something softer and sadder. I give it a B but your mileage may vary.

 Jackpot (2012). Short film. A gay teen gets questionable advice from a male model inside a pornographic magazine. Could have been creepy but it keeps things light. C

Also Recommended

  • All Over Me (1997)
  • Beautiful Thing (1996)
  • Being 17 (2016)
  • But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
  • Edge of Seventeen (1998)
  • Geography Club (2013)
  • Get Real (1999)
  • The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995)
  • Jongens (aka Boys) (2014)
  • North Sea Texas (2011)
  • Show Me Love (1998)
  • Were the World Mine (2008)

What are your thoughts on the films here? What are your recommendations?

Some Discussion Questions:

  • Which of these films would you have wanted to see in high school? Which ones would you show a questioning youth today?
  • Are any of these protagonists “role models?” Does it matter?
  • Are there any female roles in these male focused films beyond the mom, the friend and the obstacle?
  • Angsty hook ups are great but how many of these couples actually go on a date over the course of their story?

In my next LGBT film post I’ll look at adult male protagonists.