Crush is a charming, sweet, and intimate teen rom-com where the central characters are queer and it’s the best friend who’s the token straight boy. Well, it’s charming if you ignore the mostly overwritten, tryhard dialogue from the adult characters, but I have faith in you. And yes, the story is clumsy in some ways, but the delightful chemistry between the leads gives it enough buoyancy to keep the whole thing aloft.
Paige Evans (Rowan Blanchard) really wants two things. First, to get into the CalArts summer program, and second, to finally make a move on her very long-time crush, Gabriela Campos (Isabella Ferreira), the most popular girl in school, but not necessarily in that order. Of course, there are stumbling blocks to both. To complete her application to CalArts she needs to draw her “happiest moment,” which she can’t seem to figure out. Is it when she came out to her extremely open and maybe overly supportive single mother (Megan Mullally), who gives her glowing dental dams (“they make your puss kinda glow”) even though Paige has never so much as kissed a girl? Or maybe it’s when she first told Dillon (Tyler Alvarez), her platonic soulmate, that she liked girls as they sat on the swings eating Hot Cheetos? Neither seems quite right. In order to make a move on Gabriela she has to stop blurting out things like, “Your locker is a sight for sore eyes,” when they run into each other in the hallway. Ouch. The secondhand embarrassment is so real that my stomach clenched. Dillon and his girlfriend Stacey (Teala Dunn)—who are both running for Student Council President, get off on competing, constantly make out, and wear coordinating outfits—implore her to consider going for one of the many other queer girls, but Paige deems them all unworthy—one is horse gay (which Stacey points out is reductive), one is Wiccan gay, one is too insta-famous, one has fingered every girl in school (Dillon points out that she’s washed her hands), and one is Gabriela’s twin sister (we’ll come back to her real soon).
However, before she can resolve either of these issues, a third, even bigger problem crops up when Paige is wrongly accused of being KingPun, a witty graffiti artist who has been displaying their art, without permission, on school walls. The most recent mural shows the school mascot, an eagle, on its back with the words “Flipping the Bird” above it. Paige loves the art, but would NEVER deface school property because she is a rule follower. In fact, she’s such a rule follower that she’s never even been to a high school party, because of course she hasn’t!! Anyway, Paige is sent to the principal’s office by Coach Murray (Aasif Mandvi), where Principal Collins (Michelle Buteau) explains that, to set an example, Paige will be suspended. Paige is, rightfully, outraged and manages to wholly unrealistically convince them that she can “play track” where Coach Murray can keep an eye on her while she figures out who’s really behind the KingPun artwork. Aside from not getting suspended, Paige’s reason for joining the track team is complete hormone-fueled lust for Gabriela who—along with Dillon, Stacey, and Gabriela’s twin sister AJ (Auli’i Cravalho)—is already on the team.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you about why I could have done without the contrived prose that passes for comedic dialogue from the adults. Is it all improv that just went slightly off the rails and no one felt like they could say cut on set or in the editing booth? Is it meant to appeal to people over thirty who might be watching the movie? Why did they cast Aasif Mandvi if they wanted someone who could sound like a stereotypical coach? Because Aasif Mandvi sounds like someone trying really hard to sound like a stereotypical coach and it causes more cringing than I feel is strictly healthy. In the scene in the principal’s office, Coach Murray suggests that they’re going to call the police on Paige to which Principal Collins responds, “No. We are not calling the police. What are you Wyclef Jean? Ready to call 911?” And then she asks Paige, “Do you get that reference? You don’t. God my references are, like, older than Taylor Swift at this point.” This is mildly amusing. Maybe you find it more amusing. Please trust me that it goes on longer than I’m showing you here, and I just…I feel like it’s taking up unnecessary space. But honestly, it doesn’t bother me as much as the flirting between Paige’s mom and Coach Murray. When they first meet and he mistakenly calls her Mrs. Evans, she responds, “Mrs. Mmmm. That’s very revealing. It’s Miss. But you can call me Angie or Ang or ‘Hey, girl.'” What is this completely unnatural babble coming out of her mouth? And it doesn’t stop. He tells her that “if you don’t mind me saying, you have an incredible figure.” To which she responds, “We are in a school, sir. That is so wildly inappropriate. And 100% spot on. This is gold. You should see me naked.” I’m not even including all the dialogue. It’s so much longer than that. It sucks up time and air and makes me wonder if I actually like these actors. Look, I love Angie’s confidence, but we are in a movie portraying first forays into teen romance with intimacy and grace, so I don’t understand why I’m suddenly being teleported into an episode of Will and Grace Lite. Enough with the grown ups!
Paige joins the track team where they’re so desperate for runners that they take her even though she is terrible at everything and manages to wear her shorts backwards, which is adorable. She also blurts out random animal facts when she’s nervous, like telling Gabriela that male bees lose their penis when they have sex with the queen bee. Fortunately, this is a movie without villains, so everyone just looks vaguely uncomfortable and then moves on. They finally slot her into the relay race because it mostly involves running a straight line, and Coach Murray assigns AJ to whip her into shape. Where Gabriela is popular and bright and bubbly and everyone knows is out, AJ is considered mysterious and dark and rebellious and people forget that she’s bisexual. What?!? No way! Who could have seen that coming! Do you think AJ might also be misunderstood and perhaps feels she walks in Gabriela’s shadow? Do you think she might be harboring secret desires to do things beyond track? Do you think there might be a GASP! love triangle of sorts?!? There might indeed, my friends. There might indeed. That’s why we’re all here!
Then, Paige finally attends her first high school party (also totally unexpected!) in order to suss out who is really behind the KingPun murals, and she enlists AJ to help her do it. I know another unexpected twist! (Please be assured I am NOT complaining about all these expected twists.) This leads to some highly adorable scenes with the two of them interrogating their peers while clearly starting to fall for each other. In fact, all of the scenes with AJ and Paige are entirely endearing. Later in the movie, there’s a scene where the two of them are sharing a hotel room during an away track meet. They start by each awkwardly laying on an edge of the King-sized bed. Then, as they share stories and details of their lives, they gradually move closer and closer to each other in the darkness, pillows sliding over as questions are asked, heads gently angled as replies are given, with likely only their shared innocence keeping their bodies from eventually colliding. It’s romantic, intimate, deeply tender, and with an undercurrent of deep attraction, as are most of their scenes together. Of course, Paige still hasn’t given up entirely on her crush on Gabriela (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if she had) and Gabriela is finally starting to notice her existence. In one scene when the two of them are taking shots together Paige mumbles that “I bet our mouths would taste the same right now,” which struck me as such an honest, vulnerable, longing kind of line.
You’re not going to watch this movie for the compelling mystery about how the romance is going to work out or who KingPun turns out to be or whether Paige manages to avoid suspension. No, you’re going to watch this movie for eyeball comfort and warm feelings and (hopefully) because it’s just overflowing with women and messages about bodily autonomy. Her lines may irk me, but I love that Paige’s mother is a single mom by choice and so very over-the-top sex positive. (There’s a whole shelf in Paige’s room of unopened sex toys that her mom has given her.) It’s a given from the beginning that Stacey is going to win the Student Council Election, and Dillon is pretty frickin’ turned on by his girlfriend’s confidence and power. The most popular kids in school are clearly supposed to be the queer girls and non-binary kids. In one part, when Paige is staring slack-jawed at Gabriela, Dillon scolds her to “stop starting without consent, please. It’s horrifying.” When the kids are at the hotel for their track meet Coach Murray explains that while he knows that 60% of them are gay, he still doesn’t want any boys and girls in rooms together because he doesn’t want anyone getting pregnant. Stacey immediately responds, saying, “One. I will not be allowing the administration to control what I do with my body. Two. Obviously, I’m on birth control.” Later, when the teens have a party in the hotel they play “Seven Minutes in a Hotel Bathroom” because “Seven Minutes in Heaven” perpetuates a “Christian narrative.” And, of course, no one is forced to make out because this is 2022.
Phew. The kids are alright. (At least in this case.) And so is this movie.