Heartstopper (Netflix) may not live up to the dramatic promise of its title, but this endearing teen romance is certainly heartwarming. It follows 14-year-old Charlie as he develops a love on popular rugby player Nick after they bond over whether it is appropriate to complete your homework on the way to maths, adapted by writer Alice Oseman from her graphic novel series of the same name. It’s unmistakably pleasant and wholesome, and by the end of its brisk eight episodes, you’ll feel like you’ve been given a hearty hug.
This charming, touching version of Alice Oseman’s web comic about two British grammar school guys falling in love is wholesome to the point of nostalgia, and feels like a hug on TV.
Charlie is already out of school and has been bullied as a result, but he appears to have found a supportive friendship group who value their movie nights and send a lot of DMs to each other. (There’s a lot of on-screen messaging in this, and it’s tensely effective to see folks type, delete, redo, and re-delete their responses.) Ben, Charlie’s secret sort-of-boyfriend, meets up with him in the library during recess but picks on him when no one else is present. Nick comes to his rescue when Ben advances from treating him coldly to acquiring a girlfriend and then disparaging him when they’re together, and their friendship slowly evolves into something more.
It’s very nice. With periods of animation, it pays homage to its origins as a visual novel, especially when emotions are running high. Hands are almost touching; between them, cartoon lightning crackles. Hearts emerge in the air as Charlie’s buddy Elle wonders if she has love for their other friend, Tao. It appears to be a remake of Hollyoaks with an art school twist. There are a few minor squabbles among Charlie’s friends, but the focus is primarily on Charlie and Nick Heartstopper. With the exception of a parent and Stephen Fry, who appears as the headteacher shouting over the Tannoy, the adults are virtually non-existent.
I’m not sure who the target demographic is. It appears to be geared at a younger audience, and if adolescents are watching Euphoria now, it feels like a flashback to the Byker Grove/Grange Hill days. There will be double dates, milkshakes, and a lot of heartfelt hugs. With its emotionally articulate protagonists, who have a remarkably sophisticated awareness of sexuality as a continuum, it also has a modern elegance. An examination of bisexuality, for example, is handled with care, though it helps that Olivia Colman is playing the patient mother, a position she excels at Heartstopper. Charlie joins the rugby team in part to follow his crush on Nick, but also to fight the notion that he won’t be any good because he is a certain type of gay male.
“Wow, being a teenager is dreadful,” says the sympathetic art instructor, and few would disagree after viewing the episode about an affluent kid’s 16th birthday celebration. But the truth is that being a teenager doesn’t seem so horrible in this environment. The elders are great, the siblings are pleasant, and the majority of the children are delightful Heartstopper. It isn’t fully a rainbow-tinted utopia; there is some homophobia, largely due to a lack of knowledge and/or curiosity, and Ben’s self-loathing finds an unpleasant outlet in his treatment of Charlie. Charlie’s pals, particularly a pair of old-soul lesbians whose mission appears to be to assist everyone feel more comfortable with who they are, provide him with all of the support he requires.
Such wholesomeness is difficult for this old cynic to adjust to. It’s a comic book fantasy about LGBTQ+ youth, so any harsh edges are softened and the beauty of the central romance is amplified Heartstopper. The time spent in its presence is really relaxing.