In a time when popular media tends to get overly caught up in the thrills and throes of desire, a reminder that high school romance can be as simple and charming as “boy meets boy” is like a breath of fresh air. Netflix’s “Heartstopper” does exactly that more, spinning a heartwarming, coming-of-age tale of friendship, self-discovery, and romance. Following 9th grader Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) as he navigates life as an openly gay teenager at an all-boys school, the show captures the twists and turns of his new school year as he finds himself falling for Nick Nelson (Kit Conner), Truham Grammar School’s star rugby player and Charlie’s endearing classmate. Spoilers ahead.
What Season 1 of “Heartstopper” does fantastically well is its realistic and healthy depiction of high school romance: the awkwardness, constant confusion, and the anxious typing and retyping of texts to crushes. In popular (and somewhat unhinged) teenage romance movies like “Twilight” or “The Kissing Booth,” we often see toxic, unrealistic, and mostly heteronormative portrayals of high school relationships that are often rushed, romanticize harmful behaviours, and completely misinterpret young love. Characters will go from meeting each other in one moment and kissing the next. People have increasingly begun to characterize volatile mood swings and violence as part of the “hot bad boy” trope. According to media portrayals, vanilla romance is boring—love must be dramatic and brimming with tension. Suffice to say, the list is endless.
In contrast, “Heartstopper” allows its characters and their relationships to grow over the season, establishing that a good friendship is the basis for a healthy relationship. Despite condensing dialogue and scenes from the webcomic, the show doesn’t rush the relationship between Charlie and Nick. We are able to see Charlie and Nick’s relationship grow as they bond over rugby, homework and Mario Kart. Over the episodes, their friendship slowly morphs into something more before they share a spontaneous kiss at a birthday party, which despite having a bit of a dramatic build-up, still exemplifies the sense of normalcy their teenage relationship is meant to embody.
However, the show does not excel in just capturing the highs of a first love—it also highlights the realistic issues that come with having a relationship. While it does tend towards portraying puppy love as pure and sweet, we see that their depiction also does not shy away exploring the depths and deeper conflicts of romance. In several instances, Charlie and Nick’s relationship becomes strained as the episodes progress, with Charlie worrying that he is not good enough for Nick and even believing that he has to choose between ending his relationship with Nick or ruining his friendship with Tao Xu (Tony Xu).
The show works unequivocally well as a live adaption, bringing the characters to life in a way that adds dimension to their personalities, but doesn’t expand too far from their established behaviors. Joe Locke delivers on Charlie’s awkward and flustered energy while Kit Conner perfectly captures Nick’s sweetness, excitement and conflicted emotions in a way that black and white comic panels cannot. The brilliant performance by the actors deepen the viewers’ connection to these characters, even if we have already met them before in comic form. We now are able to feel their embarrassment, their flushed faces, their anger, excitement and anxiety—in a dynamic visual medium, we feel a greater sense of immersion and can appreciate the story on a much more nuanced level.
The show also manages to stay grounded in its roots without straying from the story. It pays homage to its origins as a webcomic and graphic novel, creating a unique blend of film and animation that highly respects the original art style of the comics. The show is a frame by frame replica of the comics—Charlie’s bedroom looks exactly the same, with its messy bookshelf, light-up “Music” sign, and miscellaneous posters. When emotions run high, the show takes a page straight out of the graphic novel; as Charlie’s feelings towards Nick grow, whimsical and colorful cartoon leaves flutter across the screen, imitating the ones that are present throughout the comic. In moments of particular excitement and passion, for instance, as they sit in the dimly lit room at Harry’s party and confess their feelings towards one another, colorfully animated stars and fireworks sizzle and spark between them. Overall, the show offers a unique, gorgeous blend of animated visuals and artistically lit cinematography that make for an immensely colorful and engaging watching experience.
The show also features a diverse cast of characters and explores an umbrella of sexualities and queer indentities. It also dives into teenage questioning and exploration of sexuality, with Nick googling in the darkness of his room questions like “am I gay?” and “how do you know you’re bisexual?” The show is not only its romance and comedy, however—it also dedicates screentime to portray discrimination faced by queer people. “Heartstopper” is not afraid to acknowledge the continuous harm of society and careful not to misrepresent the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people: a lesbian couple, Tara Jones (Corinna Brown) and Darcy Olsson (Kizzy Edgell), receive ignorant remarks from a classmate while Charlie is ruthlessly bullied by Harry Greene (Cormack Hyde-Corrin) and his friends. These scenes not only allow queer audiences to resonate with the characters based on similar experiences, but also reveal and emphasize to cis and straight audiences the depths gender and sexuality-based harassment and bullying can truly hurt someone.
Despite the many problems the characters run into, Season 1 of the show ends on a high note- Charlie, Nick and Tao reconcile while Nick comes out to his mother as bisexual. All in all, season one of the show receives a 5/5 for its truly sweet and heartstopping story, sure to give any viewer the warm and fuzzies.