At first glance, Alice Oseman’s beautifully heartwarming Heartstopper which launches today on Netflix, based on her hit graphic novels, feels like a throwback to much-loved 90s British films about gay teens like Beautiful Thing and Get Real. Although this series does share much of the feel-good quality of those movies and a similar focus on a young queer romance in an unaccepting environment, Heartstopper brings the boy meets boy narrative into the present day and expands it to include every LGBTQ letter without it ever feeling like box ticking.
As the series opens, we meet 14-year-old Charlie Spring (Joe Locke), who is into video games, drumming, and movie nights with his pals; who happens to be gay. He’s out at his all-boys grammar school, Truham, but Ben Hope (Sebastian Croft), a boy in the year above, isn’t. Ben texts Charlie on a whim to meet up for furtive snogs, then pretends they’ve never met when he passes him in the school corridors. The adorable and geeky Charlie, played with the perfect mix of sensitivity, vulnerability and playful charm by Locke, deserves so much more. Might confident and popular rugby lad Nick Nelson (a brilliant Kit Connor, who played a young Elton in Rocketman) be the one to give it to him? Charlie’s bffs—”token straight friend” Tao (a goofily charismastic William Gao), bookworm Isaac (an endearingly genial Tobie Donovan), and arty Elle (a captivating Yasmin Finney) who transferred to the neighbouring girls school, Higgs, after suffering transphobic bullying at Truham last year—all assume that Nick is straight and that Charlie falling hard for him will only end in tears. It’s a good reminder not to make assumptions about people’s sexuality or gender identity, let them be the one to let you know who they are, if they chose to.
As the season progresses, there’s a satisfying balance between Nick and Charlie’s perspectives, and as we shift from one to the other it’s clear that Nick is questioning his own sexuality. He does a few ‘am I gay?’ online quizzes, and while watching Pirates of the Caribbean with his mum (Olivia Colman) realizes he has the hots for both Keira and Orlando, and later stumbles upon a YouTube video of a young man talking about discovering and embracing his bisexuality, which Nick seems to connect with. His online searches highlight the importance of queer visibility and resources, especially for questioning youngsters, while also acknowledging the presence of loud anti-LGBTQ voices such as those arguing against equal marriage and in favour of conversion therapy which he comes across.
As with Am I OK?, when Charlie and Nick are DM’ing one another we get to see all the messages that each of them writes before they hit send, sometimes reconsidering, deleting and then rewriting before they do so. It’s a simple but effective way of allowing us inside each of their heads and even creates some genuine tension, such as us wondering how Nick will respond to being sent a heart emoji by Charlie. In person, the two actors have great chemistry as Nick and Charlie strike up an unlikely friendship, and become a potential couple that’s instantly easy to root for.
Veteran British television director Euros Lyn focuses on the emotions and performances, and generally keeps things nice and pacy, while also allowing scenes time to breathe when they need to. In fact where the series really excels is in bringing to life those heartstopping details of falling in love. There are some gorgeous animated flourishes that convey those nervous butterfly feelings and that electric charge as the fingers of the person you’re smitten with begin to gently touch yours, or the intense burst of joy at holding hands and then kissing for the first time. It’s also in these scenes where many the show’s most touching and uplifting, queer-tonic-for-the-soul, moments come along.
Darker animated tones are also used in an impactful way to convey Charlie’s doubts and fears; those shadows that creep into his mind. Although he’s out, he’s still on a journey of self-acceptance and there are hints of serious struggles and that he’s even contemplated suicide. At one point he declares he’s having “a full-on gay crisis”. He suffers from low self-esteem at times and is quick to blame himself—his frequent apologizing to Nick becomes a joke between them—and he repeatedly says that he feels confused. All of which is dealt with delicately and with nuance, both in Oseman’s writing and Locke’s performance.
Another nod to the series’ graphic novel origins comes in the form of multi-splitscreen, used sparingly, but enough to create an appealingly vibrant and distinctive visual style. Cinematographer Diana Olifirova generally maintains a naturalistic look to the show that allows its sun-dappled, colouful moments (yes, the heartstopping ones) to really pop. There’s a particularly gorgeous one when Higgs girls Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) kiss for the first time on a dancefloor at a party and the screen fills with rainbow coloured disco lights, as Nick looks admiringly at the openness of this expression of queer love. While Nick and Charlie making snow angels and later sharing a kiss in the pouring rain are equally memorable visually striking renderings of queer screen romance.
What Alice Oseman, who has adapted her own graphic novels for the screen, gets so right is the balance of acknowledging the existence of homophobia and transphobia and its detrimental effects, without lingering on it. We know it’s there, both Charlie and Elle were badly bullied the year before the series opens, but Heartstopper is more concerned with the queer and trans joy that happens despite living in an often hostile heteronormative society. Although young people in 2022 are likely to be more aware of the many colours and shades of the LGBTQ+ rainbow family than I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, it doesn’t mean that self-discovery or coming out—to oneself and the world—has necessarily become that much easier. It’s just different.
While folks of my generation had far less queer representation—no Heartstopper on Netflix to binge for instance—just because young people growing up today have a plethora of movies, shows, online forums, and public figures like Heartstopper star Yasmin Finney’s TikTok presence, that only goes some way to dissipating the pervasiveness of the heteronormative and providing a counterbalance to the anti-LGBTQ sentiment that’s often hiding in plain sight. It’s only when Tara and Darcy make their relationship public via an Instagram post that Tara becomes aware of the atmosphere of compulsory heterosexuality at Higgs, encountering increasingly derogatory comments both online and in person about her being a lesbian. Tara is all too aware of the downside that can come with being out at school, alongside what it felt like to not be out.
Although Nick and Charlie’s romance is at the centre of Heartstopper, the focus shifts smoothly to devoting time to all of the surrounding characters and their storylines never feel tagged on or tokenized, but integral, enriching the world of the series. The entire cast impresses, including some excellent performances in the smaller supporting roles. Rhea Norwood is a delight as Imogen, who has a major crush on Nick, with excellent comic timing, she brings an upbeat, buoyant energy to every scene. Olivia Colman as Nick’s distracted mum, often absorbed in her mobile phone, brings rich detail to her relationship with her son in very little screen time and there’s one particularly touching scene between them, beautifully played by Colman and Connor, when Nick opens up to her about how he’s been feeling. There are even several blasts of British queer national treasure Stephen Fry as the voice of the Truham’s headmaster making announcements over the Tonnoy, bringing some levity and light and shade to the role.
Heartstopper is a world where, as often in teenagehood, the parents seem to be on the periphery, but thankfully Charlie has a supportive and loving dad (Joseph Balderrama), and a sarcastic older sister Tori (Jenny Walser) with lowkey goth vibes, who’s caring and reassuring in her own way too. Charlie also has a gay art teacher Mr. Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade, with a grounded, natural and fun screen presence), proudly sporting a rainbow badge on his lapel, whom the boy can turn to for advice. Refreshingly he doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s nonjudgemental and open, and it’s insightful to hear what things were like for him growing up queer, and crucially he provides a safe space for Charlie at Truham.
Both Adiescar Chase’s score and the fantastic pop soundtrack (compiled by music supervisors Matt Biffa and Ciara Elwis), much of which was new to me, reflect the characters’ heightened emotional states without relying on the music to do any of the heavy-lifting or for it to distract or dominate a scene, only for it to enhance what’s unfolding on screen.
I loved every moment of this tender, heartfelt series and didn’t want it to end. It’s feel-good, without being contrived, or ignoring any of the challenges of coming of age as an LGBTQ teen. A celebration of true friendship and gorgeously romantic, it left me with a massive smile on my face. Let’s hope there’s a season two. I want to see more of all of these characters and the wonderful cast who inhabit them.
By James Kleinmann
Heartstopper launches globally on Netflix on Friday April 22nd.