Arts·Queeries

Fire Island revolutionizes the queer rom-com by reimagining Jane Austen

Queer male identity is ready for its Hollywood closeup in Joel Kim Booster and Andrew Ahn's spin on Pride & Prejudice.

Queer male identity is ready for its Hollywood closeup in Joel Kim Booster and Andrew Ahn's new film

Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island.
Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island. (Disney)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

For all the horrifying ways society feels like it's moving backwards, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ people, let us all just take some Pride Month™ comfort in one thing that feels so very forward. This weekend, queers all around the world are going to sit down in their living rooms and watch … a movie adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. Which might not sound so monumental until one includes the part about how this contemporary adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is set at a hedonistic gay vacation destination, features an all-LGBTQ cast, includes plenty of sex, drugs and Marisa Tomei-impressions and is being released by Disney.

Written by Joel Kim Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn, Fire Island is the first romantic comedy ever released by a Hollywood studio to be exclusively created by and starring queer people. It's also better than most straight romantic comedies could ever aspire to be, as Canadian viewers will soon find out since it begins streaming on Disney+ today (Disney-owned Hulu is releasing it in the United States).

Talking to Booster (who also stars in the film) over Zoom, I tell him how surreal it's been as a queer man to see the poster for Fire Island all around town with the Disney logo under the film's title, the names of four openly queer actors of colour (Booster, Saturday Night Live's Bowen Yang, How To Get Away With Murder's Conrad Ricamora and the legendary Margaret Cho) and the image of a group of smiling queer men in their bathing suits. I can't imagine how surreal that must be for him.

"We're the first orgies on Disney+!" Booster replies.

It's been quite the road to that magical milestone. In 2018, Booster (who you may know from his stand-up, roles in shows like Shrill and Sunnyside or his podcast Urgent Care) wrote a popular essay about reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time while vacationing on Fire Island with Yang, who he had befriended when they were coming up together in New York's comedy scene. A year later, he had a deal to develop a comedy series alongside Yang that would be somewhat inspired by that experience. Unfortunately, that deal was with Quibi, the streaming network that very much crashed and burned months after launching. Thankfully, Booster's series hadn't gone into production before Quibi's demise, and Disney-owned Searchlight Pictures purchased the idea to be turned into a feature film: Fire Island. Ahn (whose previous films Spa Night and Driveways are wonderful if you haven't seen them) came on board to direct, and Cho, Ricamora, Matt Rogers, Torian Miller and Tomás Matos joined Booster and Yang in the cast.  

Their collective efforts would result in a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice not unlike how Amy Heckerling adapted Austen's Emma for Clueless (a film that is aptly referenced multiple times in Fire Island). The Bennet sisters become a chosen family of gay men heading to Fire Island for their annual week-long adventure. Lizzie becomes Noah (Booster), Jane becomes Howie (Yang) and Mrs. Bennet becomes Erin (Cho), the group's lesbian mama bear who provides a safe haven for her boys every summer. And of course, there is a Mr. Darcy in Will (Ricamora), an uptight lawyer who initially clashes with Noah (though fans of Pride and Prejudice can guess how that turns out). 

With Booster's hilarious, nuanced script that cleverly twists Austen's themes supported by Ahn's exceptionally thoughtful direction, Fire Island manages to move well beyond its source material to become both a meditation on queer male idenitity — particularly queer men of colour — as well as an examination of often toxic sociocultural divides within queer comminities. It's as much an indictment of Fire Island as it is a love letter.  

"We didn't want to sugarcoat the Fire Island experience," Ahn says. "As much as it is a safe space from straight people, it's still a risky or uncomfortable space for people who don't necessarily fit into this white, cisgender, muscle gay kind of role. And so, for me, I think it's very cool that Fire Island has this legacy. I think it's so important as a safe haven for people to be themselves. We need to, as a community, find ways to make it even more inclusive, because our community is growing, because our community is being redefined, because parts of our community have been rejected for so long."

"I think that spaces like that are still deeply important because I think that we don't realize as queer people the weight that we carry around day by day navigating a heterosexual world and a world that is not made for us," adds Booster. "I remember the first time I went up to Fire Island and just realizing that weight because it was suddenly gone and those spaces that are predominantly queer are so important for that reason. But then you get into the problem of 'when there's no one around to oppress us, how do we oppress each other?' And those places become a real crucible of all of the toxicity that exists in our communities in the real world. They are suddenly magnified and blown out in those spaces."

The movie Fire Island.
Fire Island. (Disney)

Booster says he almost didn't call the movie Fire Island because he knew the images that might bring up. 

"That can be traumatic for a certain kind of queer person that's dealt with that," he says. "But my thing has always been that if we cede these spaces to those people and avoid them because they're there, then we've lost something really valuable. Ultimately, it's still one of my favourite places to be because it's beautiful and I think the history just feels so tangible there. And again, I go year after year and I evangelize for it because I don't think that it should just belong to white gay guys with seven per cent body fat who have all the expendable income in the world. My dream is to be rich enough to create a sort of gay birthright for queers of colour from red states to visit Fire Island so they get to experience that every now and again."

While Fire Island alone might not make Booster rich enough to realize this dream, it will put him, Ahn and everyone else involved in the queer cinema history books. 2022 will surely go down as a landmark year for queer rom-coms, with Fire Island leading into the upcoming Billy Eichner film Bros, which also is being released by a studio and stars all LGBTQ actors (including Yang). While Hollywood did release a handful of LGBTQ-centric romantic comedies in the 1990s (In & Out and The Birdcage being the most notable), they came largely from straight filmmakers and starred straight casts. And then they simply stopped making them. After a two-decade hiatus, Fire Island and Bros mark a major return to the genre for mainstream studios, except this time queer folks are behind the wheel. 

"I think that with The Birdcage and In and Out, for example, there were a lot of straight people involved there," Booster says. "And I think we felt maybe like a fad that was very easy to sort of cast off. There was no trust for the actual queer people that maybe wanted to make those movies on a bigger scale. I think that for Billy [Eichner] and I both, it is very much like we had to prove ourselves in other ways before the industry would allow us to make these movies. And so, I think that's a big part of it, that there didn't seem to be avenues to gain that trust in the way that we're now in the era of the writer/creator." 

"I made two very small indie films that are fractions of the budgets of what Fire Island was made for," adds Ahn. "And I think if I hadn't made those films, I wouldn't have been able to get hired for this, and I probably wouldn't have done it very well. So I'm really happy that I got to grow up in indie-film land. And I think it's always going to be an important aspect of cinema culture. I'm excited to move into this space with a movie like Fire Island, and I hope that it inspires more movies like this."

Booster himself was very much inspired by the independent film world that allowed queer creators to make their own romantic comedies when Hollywood wasn't interested.

"As much as this movie is an homage to Jane Austen and Clueless with what Amy Heckerling did, it's also about the films I saw when I worked at a video rental store," he says. "I was watching anything that TLA was releasing or Wolfe Studios was releasing. So like Big Eden, Trick, Mambo Italiano, Adam & Steve or any gay indie rom-com I was devouring at the time. So I definitely am walking in their footsteps."

From left: Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang and Tomas Matos in Fire Island (Disney)

Another really hopeful development in terms of LGBTQ representation is how Booster isn't walking in those footsteps alone. He's part of a surge in queer writers, actors and comedians (or in his case, all three) who are getting to create work on their own terms. 

"I think there was a real sea change about ten years ago when I started," he says. "I've talked to gay comedians that have been doing this for 20 years who talk about how isolated they felt coming up in this industry, because there was this idea that there could only be one of us that was successful. There could only be one of us on the lineup. There could only be one of us who would break through and then the door would close behind them. The industry would have their gay guy and that would be it. And I think somewhere around the time we started it, we were like, f--k that, you know?" 

Booster says it's so much easier — and so much more fun — when you "have people who aren't pulling the ladder from behind you." He doesn't think he would have survived in the New York comedy scene without his own chosen family, including his Fire Island co-stars Yang and Rogers.

"We created a support system that I just don't think we were given space to do as queer people 20 years ago," he says. "It would be very easy for me to look at Bowen's success and be like, 'Well, it's over for me because they have their gay Asian guy now.' But I think making a conscious decision to be happy and supportive of each other really has made it so that they can't close the door. We've put our foot in it, and they won't close the door on us now." 

Stream Fire Island on Disney+ (and Hulu in the United States) starting today. You can also check out Booster's new comedy special Psychosexual, which debuts on Netflix June 21st. 

Listen to Bowen Yang interviewed on q:

On Saturday Night Live, Bowen Yang’s scene-stealing comedy work has earned him two Emmy nominations. He joined Tom Power to talk about having the chance to finally show his leading man potential in the new movie Fire Island, which revisits Pride and Prejudice among a group of vacationing gay best friends.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Say hello to our newsletter: hand-picked links plus the best of CBC Arts, delivered weekly.

...

The next issue of Hi, art will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.