All good queer coming-of-age stories follow a similar plot: An outcast falls in love with the most popular person in school and ends up joining a sports team to try and woo them. Think Heartstopper, Love, Victor, or We Are Who We Are. Maybe it’s the sweat, the camaraderie, the pheromones, I don’t know, but something about team sports gets the gays going and proves to be the tie that binds. (Looking back, it was volleyball for me.) And somewhere along the way, unrequited love turns to friendship, then love, and the rest is history. Hulu’s newest queer rom-com, Crush, is no exception.
Crush’s tagline is “Love is Messy AF,” but, for the most part, these teens come out unscathed. Paige (Rowan Blanchard) is an openly queer teen artist whose biggest worry is not getting suspended when the principal suspects she’s been vandalizing the school with graffiti under the pseudonym “King Pun.” She has a best friend who’s the future class president, Dillon, and a supportive, sex-positive mother, Angie.
Eventually, Paige, awkward as she is, reluctantly joins the track team to escape potential suspension...and get closer to her long-time girl crush, Gabriela Campos (Isabella Ferreira). We follow Paige as she struggles with both her application to a Cal Arts summer program and the search for King Pun’s true identity, all while literally jumping hurdles to impress Gabriela—who just so happens to be team captain. Things heat up when Paige is paired with Gabriela’s twin sister, AJ (Auli’l Cravalho), to train, and they form a bond during a steamy seven-minutes in heaven session. At this point, the movie becomes hella predictable, as it becomes clear the “King Pun” is going to be AJ. But I stuck around to see how Paige was going to unravel herself from that tangled love triangle—and whether Crush would follow the common Breakfast Club/To All the Boys trope: Girl pines for the most-popular hottie in school, and the hottie turns out to be a complete and utter mess.
But Paige’s mom, Angie, a Lorelai-Gilmore-on-overdrive type played hilariously by Megan Mullally, particularly spoke to me. In one scene, Angie talks to Paige and Dillon about vibrators and masturbation, and when Paige says, “That’s gross,” Angie responds, “This is a sex-positive house, Paige. Shame does not live here.” While Angie can, at times, come across as inappropriately forthcoming and is positioned as a “woke” mentor to the point where it starts to feel disingenuous—as a kid whose teen years were filled with shame and repression, my heart fluttered at the words “shame does not live here.”
When I think back to my formative years of questioning my sexuality as a Black teen, I have to say I feel so far removed from Paige’s experience as a BIPOC high school student raised in an inclusive, queer-embracing school and an ultra-supportive home. Because I know this isn’t the reality that many BIPOC queer teens have—I certainly didn’t. Let’s just say that when I was caught experimenting with a girl at 11, there was a whole Holy Water and scripture exorcism. Even talking about my first time was an excruciating mess, marked by pleas for abstinence. When Paige comes out to her mother in elementary school she says, “Honey, I’m so happy for you,” and gives her a high five.
We actually don’t know much else about Angie, except that she’s a nurse and has glow-in-the-dark dental dams (???) on hand at all times. But throughout the movie, we see Angie act blasé about Paige taking edibles and using sex toys (she even tells AJ to “spark a bong” in order to loosen up while at an away meet). Some would say Mullaly’s portrayal is every queer high school kid’s dream—or any high school kid, for that matter. Paige makes little comments about her mother, like, “Maybe she’s a little too supportive,” while rolling her eyes at Angie’s unfiltered sexuality, but that kind of support should never be taken for granted.
For many Black and brown teens with BIPOC parents, coming out is traumatic and queerness is still very taboo. Much of this comes not only from our communities’ tethers to religious tradition, but also from the pervasive fear that queerness will be yet another card stacked against Black and brown youth. Sex Education captures this dynamic pretty accurately, via Eric’s (Ncuti Gatwa) traditional Nigerian parents’ heteronormative views and concerned reactions to his flashy clothes and vibrant identity expression. We also see this play out in Hulu’s Love, Victor as Victor (Michael Cimino) tries to perform straightness for his Catholic parents’ approval, his Latinx father whispering homophobic comments about the gay men at church and mother simply walking out of the room, stunned, when he comes out. My experiences as a queer teen were far closer to those shows than what’s portrayed in Crush—so for me, seeing what a queer-friendly progressive school and family environment might look like was a balm for a once-questioning Black girl.
The kids in Crush are the opposite of those I grew up with: We were all pretty maladjusted and confused and clumsily figuring shit out. But every teen in Crush is well-adjusted, self-actualized, and in full ownership of their sexuality. There are even “plenty of queer options” at the film’s Miller High, as Dillon points out, whereas, you’d be lucky if you found one other openly queer girl at my high school. At Miller High, Dillon and Stacey are both sexually charged love birds vying for class president, while continuously consumed in a heavy-petting romp in the hallways, at track practice, and at school functions, and the adults don’t bat an eyelash; this is a massive contrast to the “don’t touch below the waste-line” restrictions, skirt length requirements, and “no kissing in the hallway” rules I grew up with. In Paige’s world, the students get to be who and what they want to be—except for a graffiti artist—and even that changes at the end into a school beautification mural project.
What I loved most about Crush is that it isn’t a queer rom-com that’s hyper-focused on a coming-out story; it’s a coming-of-age comedy in which the main characters happen to be gay. If the film is realistic at all about the experience of high schoolers today, it gives me hope that things are getting better for queer teens looking for a place to belong, and that warms the little questioning inner-teenage part of me right up.