You know how sometimes you push that one bite of food to the side of your plate so it can be the last taste in your mouth? Well, that’s how I felt after watching the trailer for the Netflix series Heartstopper, which is based on the graphic novels by Alice Oseman. It looked so good that I just kept saving it for later. But food doesn’t keep forever, no series is going to be the last one watched, this metaphor has reached its limit, and I finally watched Heartstopper. I was right, though, about it being a delicious show that you want to linger on your mind’s tastebuds for as long as possible.
With its preponderance of saturated yellows and blues and bold straight lines, Heartstopper immediately evokes a graphic novel. Charlie Spring (Joe Locke), a Year Ten student at Truham school for boys, spent much of last year getting bullied for being openly gay. This year the jerks seem to have (at least temporarily) found other people to target, but Charlie still carries his trauma near the surface. You can see it in his always searching eyes and slightly hurried gait. He’s also carrying on a secret relationship with a very closeted boy named Ben (Sebastian Croft), who treats him like total trash and actually yells at him when Charlie says a passing hello to him in the school hallway. Clearly, Ben has some real issues to work through. He also might just be a real ass. Because Charlie is plagued with low self-worth and desperately wants a boyfriend, none of this is quite enough to give Ben the boot, but finally Ben does something Charlie considers unforgivable and he does cut him off. Go Charlie!
Charlie doesn’t know it, and it seems entirely counterintuitive, but his life is about to change for the better when he gets seated next to Nick Nelson (Kit Connor)—a Year Eleven rugby player—in his form class. From the moment these two sit down next to each other—in the corner of the classroom, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, backs to a large window—and exchange a softly spoken hi–you can feel the air shift. Little animated leaves float around Charlie’s head, indicating that he’s crushing on Nick, who appears to be the picture of sportsball heterosexuality. But looks can be deceiving, can’t they? And maybe things are happening in Nick’s mind and body that not even Nick understands quite yet.
Charlie’s best friend Tau (William Gao) is particularly concerned about Charlie interacting with Nick, who he worries will be different around his “bro dude friends” and will end up getting Charlie bullied again. Tau is also incredibly stressed because he feels off-kilter now that their friend Elle (Yasmin Finney) has transferred to Higg’s— the nearby girl’s school (where she won’t be constantly misgendered, but she will initially struggle to make friends)—leaving Charlie, Tau, and Isaac (Tobie Donovan), whose nose is always in a book, to be a trio rather than a group of four. Tau doesn’t know how they will all cope, or mostly how he’ll cope. Plus, he worries about being left behind by Charlie and Elle in general. Obviously, as any teen series worth its salt should, along with romance the series will address the ups and downs of teenage friendship when confronted with change—and these friends are facing some really big changes. And while there’s lots of wrestling with sexuality, the story of coming out is never the climax, which seems like an important shift in this kind of storytelling from versions of the dusty past.
Everyone in Charlie’s year is literally left behind by him when they run laps in gym class, where he is by far the fastest. From across the field, Nick happens to see him outpacing everyone and has the idea that Charlie should join the rugby team as a reserve player. Maybe it’s also because Nick likes to be around Charlie, but that’s still TBD. Charlie is, to put it mildly, skeptical at first, but he agrees, probably because he’s a teenage boy who’s just been asked by his crush to join his sportsball team, and you certainly can’t blame him for that. Nick does a lot of one-on-one training with Charlie and OH MY STARS it’s just the most encouraging, delightful kind of training with a subtly growing attraction and friendship and trust between the two of them.
An altercation with Ben leads to an offer of real friendship and open honesty, which brings Nick and Charlie still closer together. Soon they’re spending more and more time together outside of school. Charlie goes to Nick’s house to meet his dog Nellie (Echo) and they play together in an unexpected snow storm. Nick visits Charlie’s house where he tries (and fails) to play the drums. It’s quite lovely the way Charlie is worlds better at many things than Nick, and Nick is genuinely awed by his skills. The series, without being pedantic about it, carefully makes the point that Charlie can be “gay nerd,” as Nick lovingly calls him, without being a stereotype.
Later, while they’re watching a movie, Charlie dozes off and Nick looks at his sleeping face with such yearning, questioning wonder that your own heart may momentarily stop beating. He places his hand above Charlie’s, clearly considering if he might want to hold it, and as he does a warm light glows between their palms, small animated stars and lightning bolts fly out, and there’s a crackling sound, like a lit fuse. Nick pulls back before he makes contact, closing his hand as if the feeling is too much, but it’s the beginning of him consciously questioning his own sexuality and starting to understand how he really feels about Charlie. The whole series is made up of scenes that revolve around small intimate moments like this one—you should watch for the scene with their first kiss alone—so it feels like a very personal portrait of Charlie and Nick and their friends’ lives and growing sexuality, but, at the same time, it’s touching on universal themes. Which means that it manages to feel deeply intimate and unique while still addressing the bigger picture of LGBTQIA+ rights and bullying without feeling stodgy or preachy. It’s a more difficult and delicate balance than you might think to achieve.
There is a storyline between Elle’s new friends and Higg’s only out lesbian couple, Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), which I felt got kind of emotionally shorted in the end. For all the things that the series carefully let be talked through or left open-ended or still a work-in-progress, their story felt more cut and dry and almost too easily resolved. I’m not sure why the choice was made, and perhaps I’m being too much of a stickler here for wanting storylines that are loosey goosey, but I found myself saying, I’m not sure that’s how that works! more than once during one of their pivotal scenes. Obviously, your interpretation may vary by a lot. I’m certainly no expert.
Before we go any further, I do need to tell you that my favorite character is Tori (Jenny Walser), Charlie’s mostly affectless, heavily banged, older sister, who silently appears out of nowhere—usually with a tall drink clutched in one hand that she sips noisily through a straw—to ask a relevant question or make a comment on Charlie’s life. After Nick tells Charlie that he looks very cuddly wrapped in a blanket and then suddenly hugs him goodbye, Tori appears in the hallway, drink in hand, to say dryly, “I don’t think he’s straight,” before slurping her drink and returning wordlessly to her room. Tori with the truth bomb for the win. Later, though, she also demonstrates real love and support for Charlie in ways that are vitally important.
Of course, when they’re not face to face a lot of the communicating between characters is done via text. (I mean, what else are they going to do? Call each other? Don’t be ridiculous.) Often the camera shows the phone screen as someone types, pauses, erases, re-types, erases, re-types, etc.— You get the picture. It’s a smart trick to show the characters wrestling with their inner dialogues. Like when Charlie is first deciding about how much to tell Nick about the situation with Ben. At first he tells Nick that everything is fine, but when Nick pushes more Charlie goes through several iterations of a response before finally getting the right one. The same is true of Tau and Elle’s evolving relationship and their unsent texts, which give us, the viewers, so much insight into what they’re both thinking and feeling, insight that we wouldn’t otherwise glean from their often impassive facial expressions and deflective in person conversations.
Visually, part of what makes Charlie and Nick so utterly captivating to watch is the way their physical disparities complement each other. Charlie, with his dark, serious eyes and often searching gaze, is narrow with angular, almost elfin features—an upturned nose, high cheekbones, prominent ears, dark curly hair, a pointed chin, and thick eyebrows. Nick, on the other hand, with his kind, trusting gaze, is made of rounder lines—full apple cheeks, freckles splashed across his face, red, straight hair with a cowlick that falls to one side, a small nose, rounder chin, and a muscular, but softer, sturdier body. I don’t know quite how to say it, but there’s something about the way they reflect and absorb the light from each other that’s nearly magical to watch. It’s also the way that the show treats their deepening attraction and relationship with such respect for their age, their respective confusion, their tentativeness, their prior friendship, and their experience. You know I love a show like Sex Education that delves deep into teenage horniness, but there’s space as well for a show like this one that spends time seeking and searching through the emotional quandaries, leaving physicality to things like the sparks of pinky fingers grazing, lingering gazes, secretly holding hands in a movie theater, and, of course, the electricity of lips meeting lips in gentle life affirming kisses. Heartstopper is physically chaste, but emotionally naked.