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Fire Island is a sharp look at queer desire, tucked into a sweet rom-com

Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang star in this sun-splashed love letter to queer spaces, gay male friendship, and the Meat Rack.

The cast of Fire Island going to tea.
Jeong Park
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

If you ask a gay man from New York City about Fire Island, chances are he will have at least two stories. One will be about the best night of their lives. The other one will be about the worst. There’s also a very strong possibility that both those nights are one and the same. Those memories probably involve friends, handsome strangers, the beach, a sunrise, a hot tub, being sassed by the high school girls working at the Pines Pantry grocery store on their summer break, squealing laughter, and maybe some parts that they don’t totally remember.

That’s the magic of Fire Island and places like it (Provincetown, Rehoboth Beach, Palm Springs, etc.) For decades, these queer enclaves in the United Stares have allowed LGBTQ people to let their guard down, and live their most enjoyable lives — sex, love, friendship, and everything in between — without worrying about acceptability.

Yet it’s rare that these stories, with decades and decades of history, actually become the inspiration for mainstream movies and get the financial backing that comes with it. Mainstream Hollywood has a history of reluctance when it comes to featuring stories from minorities, let alone queer men’s sexual and romantic fantasies. This isn’t to say that romances centering gay men haven’t been made, but they’re usually indie flicks.

More recently, family-friendly mainstream rom-coms like 2018’s Love Simon and 2021’s Single All the Way have been released, but Fire Island is the first of two high-profile comedies out in the next few months (Billy Eichner’s Bros will be released at the end of September) that promise not to shy away from gay men’s sex lives.

That’s why director Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island stands out. It’s premiering on Hulu on Friday, stars two Asian American queer men as its leads, and doesn’t include any tragedy or harangued coming out (usually the kind of gay stories Hollywood leans on). Written by and starring comedian Joel Kim Booster, the joyful rom-com captures the silliness, sweetness, sex, raunch, and love that one week with friends spent at the eponymous New York islet can bring.

Yes, there’s a musical number in Fire Island. No, I am not spoiling it for you.
Jeong Park

It hits all the required notes for the genre, and even sneaks in some thoughtful commentary on gay male desire, and platonic friendships between gay men — there’s a pesky trope in movies and television to pair off the gay male characters romantically.

The film’s golden, sun-splashed cinematography will also likely induce FOMO if you haven’t already booked a vacation this summer. As a longtime practicing homosexual, I was a little worried about Fire Island’s debauchery — the Meat Rack (which, despite its name, does not involve an artisanal butcher), the underwear party at the Ice Palace, the back room at the underwear party (which is exactly how it sounds) — being buffed down in an effort to avoid offending the mainstream masses. After all, gay stories are exponentially easier to sell when gay men aren’t having enjoyable, hot sex in them.

But Ahn and Booster relieve those fears throughout the film, opening with Noah (Booster) irreverently quoting Jane Austen while sorting through the chaos of a one-night stand (Noah is not, for the record, in want of a wife). Later in the movie, there’s Ahn lighting and staging the aforementioned underwear party to look even sexier than it is in reality.

Booster himself has said that he doesn’t mind if straight audiences don’t get his jokes and references — anyone still curious about the Meat Rack after seeing the movie will have to visit in person.

Noah and his friends are mostly on a mission to find Mr. Right Now, but Booster’s script delves deeper. While the thematic intent of exploring sexual desire is typically tackled in a straightforward, easygoing way, Booster grapples with ideas of beauty and power, and recognizes why, for gay men especially, it’s such a fragile yearning.

For what’s billed as a fantastical romantic comedy about how magical Fire Island can be, Booster treads into some ambitious and uncomfortable emotional territory as he tells a story about how gay male culture privileges the looks and net worth of a specific type of man, and simultaneously how it tends to diminish men who don’t fit that mold. It’s vulnerable and honest, and the movie is wiser for it. Booster and Ahn understand that the world their characters live in isn’t always generous or kind. Their wistful film also shows that despite gay life’s cruelties, it doesn’t ever mean it’s lacking in love.

The biggest marketing move in selling Fire Island has been that it’s meant to be a subversive interpretation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, not unlike the way 1995’s Clueless retells Emma with popular, rich Beverly Hills kids. Usually, stacking any movie against Amy Heckerling’s witty, self-aware classic would be unfair, but Fire Island holds its own.

Noah, a nurse with an enviable shoulder-to-hip ratio, is the movie’s Lizzie Bennett, but much more cynical. He’s not looking for a husband, and he’s very much aware of the currency that his abs afford him. He’s making the mad dash — an expensive Uber and a ferry — to Fire Island with his “sisters” Howie (Bowen Yang), Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomas Matos), and Max (Torian Miller). Noah’s chosen family are the Bennetts of Fire Island. They’re not exactly wealthy and they’re lodging with a lesbian named Erin (Margaret Cho), who has been exiled from Cherry Grove, the lesbian section of the isle. Due to Erin’s financial instability, it’s going to be their last Fire Island week together.

Noah and Howie, who is loosely Fire Island’s Jane Bennett, are best friends. They’re also both Asian American gay men, and with that they share many of the same experiences growing up. The stereotypes, the ideas of masculinity, the casual bigotry ingrained in gay male culture, may all be hard to fully feel if you haven’t grown up queer and Asian. That being said, Ahn and Booster translate this unspoken understanding with thoughtfulness, ensuring that you don’t have to fully comprehend their dynamic to easily empathize with it.

Noah wants Howie to get laid, promising he won’t sleep with anyone until his best friend does. On the surface, it seems like a good intention. Noah just wants everyone to see Howie the way Noah sees him. But Noah’s need to make Howie feel wanted reflects his own insecurities, and his own implicit admission that Howie may not be considered traditionally attractive when it comes to very unforgiving gay male beauty standards.

Those insecurities take human form in Howie’s love interest, earnest pediatrician Charlie (James Scully), Noah’s Mr. Darcy-esque Will (Conrad Ricamora), and their friend group of muscled, white affluent gay men.

The clique has a beautiful house, but makes others feel uninvited. They’re unfriendly, but they’ll only talk behind your back. And though they say they’re coming over for dinner and how fun that will be, they’ll never show up and can’t be bothered to give an explanation why. Charlie’s friends don’t think Howie is good enough — a calculus of being handsome and successful — to be with Charlie.

There’s some pleasure in watching an acerbic writer like Booster flay the terminal shallowness of these mean Ken doll clones with names like “Braden” and their designer speedos. Being white, rich, and having fantastic pecs puts you at the apex of the gay social status hierarchy. Howie and Noah and the Fire Island Bennetts don’t measure highly on that scale, and it gnaws away at them.

The turmoil created by this white gay crew and the many like it raises the question of why people go to what appears to be Mean Girl Island in the first place. Why bother? Is the promise of a one-night stand really worth it?

Howie begins to question why Charlie would even be interested in him. Noah doesn’t see long-term potential in Charlie, either, even though Charlie and Will seem purer and kinder than the company they keep. The film spends a good amount of time showing us that Noah and Howie are both too smart and too kind to be sucked into this superficial world, but that isn’t the way desire works.

Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island. On Fire Island, men are constantly shirtless.
Jeong Park

There are no rules, no reason, no logic, when it comes to wanting to be seen as beautiful by someone you think is beautiful too. Both Howie and Noah wrestle with that want, whether it’s putting up emotional walls and never letting anyone get close, or doing enough sit-ups in hopes that you bypass the crueler parts of the system. Altogether, it’s a vulnerable, honest perspective from Booster about the irrationality of gay male desire. It’s a perspective that mainstream Hollywood hasn’t always made room for, which is why Fire Island is being described as “groundbreaking.”

At the heart of Fire Island is the idea that queer friendship is its own kind of love. Being gay or queer is often tied to sexuality, but it’s also about living a life that doesn’t necessarily look like the ones prescribed to us. Friendship in queer life takes many forms, and each one is special in its own way. For LGBTQ people, friendship can be redemptive, nourishing, familial, brave, and loving in ways that are just as valuable as the kind of romantic love that Austen wrote about.

Fire Island itself is as much a love letter to our best friends, those soulmates who bring joy to our lives, as it is a reminder that these friendships can be fleeting and should be cherished. The love between friends in Fire Island, particularly Howie and Noah, is much more convincing and more compelling than the romantic love between the movie’s leads that we’re supposed to root for. Yang and Booster crackle when they’re together.

I think it’s because those types of friends see the beauty in us and want the best for us. Sometimes, they even want better for us than they want for themselves. They’re generous and kind when the world isn’t. And they allow us to be our truest selves. That’s a type of love too, one that I’d gladly see more movies about.