Heartstopper review: The genuine queer rom-com we deserve in 2022

Heartstopper /

Meet Netflix’s Heartstopper, your new obsession. The new series, based on the award-winning webcomic and graphic novels of the same name by Alice Oseman, follows a few formative months in the life of a group of students in Kent, South England and tells the ups and downs of friendships, first love, coming out, and mental health.

Let me say it straight off the bat: No, it doesn’t have many things in common with Sex Education, except for the fact that it tells a realistic story that’s accurately representative of today’s population. Any teenage story is bound to be about self-discovery and growth, and Heartstopper does it in a way that’s less loud and dramatic, more introspective, but not less colorful. The vibe is completely different, and while I adore Sex Education, I have to say I prefer the quieter comedy of Heartstopper because it’s more realistic and easier to relate to.

The series stays uniquely true to its massively popular source material, as See-Saw Production thankfully entrusted the show’s creation and writing to the multi-talented Alice Oseman. Fans of the graphic novel will rejoice in seeing nearly all their favorite scenes be translated flawlessly onto the screen with barely any changes.

As prophesized by the title, the series will make your heart stop beating in your chest multiple times due to too many emotions. It will certainly melt and melt as we meet Charlie Spring (Joe Locke), resident gay kid at Truham High School, and his group of nerdy friends. Charlie is shy, an introvert who loves music, math, and daydreams. What’s fascinating about him is the dichotomy of how he is perennially afraid to take up space int the world and would apologize for existing and yet he is a pro drummer, one of the loudest instruments. Year 10 will see Charlie be forced out of his comfort zone and away from the loyal protection of his friends.

Heartstopper review

The series checks all the boxes for every unavoidable rom-com rite of passage, starting with an adorable meet cute. Enter Nicholas Nelson (Kit Connor). Popular kid, star of the rugby team, and all-around sweetheart. A year older than Charlie, he warms up to him right away. Charlie feels sparks fly at first sight, only encouraged by the kindness Nick shows him every day. In turn, Nick is instantly bewildered and intrigued by Charlie and opens up to him immediately.

Their chemistry is undeniable, and it’s evident in the genuine excitement on Nick’s face every time he so much as glances at Charlie, and in Charlie’s adoring gaze; it’s clear in the supercut of “hi” they exchange every morning, plastered on their faces like they’re marveling at each other’s existence in the world. Such a stark and immediate difference with the abysmal way Ben (Sebastian Croft), Charlie’s secret boyfriend and a walking red flag, treats him.

In fact we have a bit of a proverbial damsel in distress moment when Nick saves the day by physically shoving Ben off of Charlie in a dark room, because Ben wouldn’t listen to Charlie’s repeated “no.” From that moment, Nick becomes protective and immensely supportive, perhaps to make up for all the bad he knows Charlie has encountered. However, we are never fooled that that is the only reason why they are spending so much time together or texting day and night, because it’s clear Nick genuinely enjoys Charlie’s company. With him, he feels free, not bound by his friends’ expectations of what he should always be like or do or say.

As their friendship develops, so do their feelings. Despite knowing (assuming?) that Nick is straight, Charlie is confused by what he feels are mixed signals. Nick’s complete lack of toxic masculinity means that he’s so friendly he borders on flirty. To us, it’s clear that Nick is simply being genuine. At first, he doesn’t mean anything by his constant touches, smiles, and texts, simply because he doesn’t know that he could mean anything by it. Heteronormativity has taught him that liking Charlie in any way other than friendly is not even an option he has. But there’s this look of perennial surprise on Nick’s face whenever he watches Charlie do anything, like he’s discovering a new universe. It’s clear he feels a pull toward the other boy, but he doesn’t know what to do with it.

Despite his friends’ skepticism and repeated warnings, Charlie convinces himself that Nick may like him back. Nick quickly spirals in what he calls “a gay panic”: he wants to take Charlie’s hand, to hug him for more than the acceptable amount of time for bro hugs… so he does what millennials do. He turns to the internet for answers. He takes online quizzes, as if those generic tests could give him a straight (lol) magical answer to the most intimate of matters. He’s thrown off by some of the questions and he is overwhelmed by reading many awful things happening to gay people. Deep down, he knows what he wants, or he wouldn’t be looking into it so obsessively, but Charlie is the only openly gay person he has ever known, and his rugby friends are far from accepting. It’s not until he witnesses the cinematic moment of Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) kissing unapologetically at a party in technicolor lights, that he genuinely considers the possibility for himself.

Heartstopper books, Heartstopper graphic novels, how many heartstopper books are there?
Heartstopper /

After sequences of loud music at the party, Nick and Charlie find a quiet room and take that inevitable first step and share a kiss. The scene is almost unbearably beautiful in its significance. Of course, it’s interrupted by heteronormativity (read: the jocks demanding Nick’s attention) and Nick runs away, scared and confused, but always meaning to go back to Charlie after dealing with his friends. The miscommunication is clear to us but not to poor Charlie, who probably spends the night hating himself for pushing Nick too far. But the day after, Nick shows up at Charlie’s house in the rain, dripping wet, like the dramatic love interest in an ’80s movie. They both apologize, and they do what eventually becomes the key in their relationship: they talk through it.

The rest of the season is equally endearing, with Nick researching bisexuality and Charlie learning to accept love and the two of them embarking in a progressively less secret relationship. There are ups and downs, and problems do not disappear overnight just because their love isn’t unrequited. Mental health isn’t a joke, and social issues aren’t magically swept under a rug, but for the most part, Charlie and Nick have each other and their friends and things are okay. The last scene of the series is beyond delightful in its romanticism and the pure joy of being alive and in the company of someone you love.

While the main couple gets the most amount of screentime, the show provides variety and diversity through various b-plots, like Elle (Yasmin Finney) trying to make friends at her new girls-only school, Tao (William Gao) readjusting to Elle’s absence, and their budding romance, which is just as adorable as Nick and Charlie’s. Just as endearing is the storyline of Tara and Darcy navigating coming out as a lesbian couple at an all-girls school, which perhaps deserved more time to be developed further. Hopefully, this will happen if the series is renewed and we get multiple seasons, since the source material continues beyond the story told in these eight episodes. (#RenewHeartstopper, anyone?)

Heartstopper is a masterpiece. It’s exactly the kind of story with real-world representation I wish was accessible to me when I was in high school. Regardless of whether or not you find yourself in the joys and struggles of the characters, most millennials can relate to being young and in love, remember a moment in life where every word or gesture has to be overanalyzed, where every social media post and text message (or the lack of it) feels like the end of the world. To being there for your sibling in time of need. To wanting to protect your friend because you’re afraid of them getting hurt. To finding new, unexpected camaraderie with new friends.

At its core, Heartstopper is a story about love and its wonderful, multifaceted, colorful shapes, and about challenging yourself as you navigate it.

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