The easiest way to start a review of Alice Oseman’s Netflix series Heartstopper would be to contrast it with Sam Levinson’s HBO sensation Euphoria. With its candy-color palette, delirious pace and pointed use of needle drops, the new romantic teen drama offers itself up as an intuitive counterpoint: Whereas Euphoria‘s interest in adolescent emotions depends on an exaggerated nihilism, Heartstopper leans into earnestness, constructing a coming-of-age story notable above all for its sweetness.
I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Heartstopper‘s dulcet tone is addictive. Oseman (who also wrote the web comic on which the show is based) aims for sincerity. Her characters approach familiar sets of problems with a nourishing level of care. They abandon cruelty for curiosity, restlessness for patience. The series opts for restraint and quiet humor, which gives its core lessons room to breathe. It’s a low-key viewing experience that stays with you long after the credits roll.
The Bottom Line
A breath of fresh air.
Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor) occupy different spheres of their all-boys grammar school in the UK. The former is a slightly nerdy, chronic apologizer while the latter is the popular, confident captain of the rugby team. They meet in math class, where they strike up an affable report made up of meek hellos and small talk about their weekends. Their romantic spark is obvious – at least to Charlie. Nick, on the other hand, is a little slow to catch on.
Their budding romance drives the beginning of Heartstopper, which is less a show about coming out than it is about wrestling with self-definition and queer identities. Nick doesn’t understand his initial attraction to Charlie, who came out as gay the previous year at school. What he does know is that this boy, who used to spend his lunch breaks bonding with his teacher (Fisayo Akinade), makes him feel more like himself than anyone else.
Naturally, Charlie and Nick become best friends, a development that unnerves Charlie’s oldest friends, Tao (William Gao) and Isaac (Tobie Donovan). Tao, especially, who has seen Charlie’s cycle of infatuation with closeted boys at their school, is skeptical of Nick and his intentions. Beneath that suspicion lies a greater anxiety about change: Ever since their best friend Elle (Yasmin Finney), a trans girl, transferred to the all-girls grammar school nearby, the group dynamic hasn’t been the same.
Heartstopper is preoccupied by change – its peculiarity, its weight, the way it looms large in the adolescent mind. How the show investigates this theme makes it most thrilling to watch. We’ve all been there – suffocated by the prospect that the lives we’ve built, the definitions we’ve crammed ourselves into, the identities we’ve committed to performing no longer make sense. Or worse, that they never did.
Nick experiences this identity crisis, reluctantly at first. As he spends more time with Charlie, who eventually joins the rugby team, he feels himself changing. His exploration of queer identity happens in the dark of his room, where he googles questions like “am I gay” and “how do you know you’re bisexual.” Heartstopper respects these moments and folds them seamlessly into conversations Charlie eventually initiates with Nick about his own sexuality. Armed with information, a different Charlie begins to creep up: He is not ashamed of who he is; he just wishes he could explain it better.
Other members of the friend group grapple with their own changes. Elle initially struggles to make friends at her new school, until she falls into a giggling trio with Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell). Tao, who harbors a fear of abandonment, can’t bring himself to accept that his friends, with their new loves and lives, are moving on.
Director Euros Lyn and cinematographer Diana Olifirova adopt a shimmering and colorful visual language to tell each of these characters’ stories. It’s all backed by a touch of whimsy, recalling Josephine Decker’s recent YA film The Sky Is Everywhere. Heartstopper‘s composer and music supervisors also deserve praise for populating the show with music that will inevitably inspire endless gifs and “best of” compilation videos.
Perhaps Heartstopper‘s greatest strength is how it treats honesty: Oseman treasures its value, but acknowledges its challenges. The series ultimately views any attempt at candor – no matter how small – as not only a step in the right direction, but an achievement in and of itself.