Culture, Entertainment, Film

Heartstopper review – Wonderfully wholesome and an ode to queer optimism

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Featured image: Netflix

From starting life on the page to quickly becoming a Netflix fan-favourite, Heartstopper has literally captured the hearts of viewers around the world. Making the Netflix top ten list in over 54 countries, it has also caught the attention of Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, who tweeted: “Oh heartstopper VERY CUTE VERY CUTE !!!!! Happiness !!!”. It’s a thought shared by many who have experienced the refreshing series.

Image: Netflix

Heartstopper initially began as a graphic novel series by Alice Oseman and its roots are successfully woven throughout the series. Whenever a particularly heartwarming moment is happening on screen, it’s completed with an animation of flowers or hearts, which tastefully signals the tender moments that are occurring on-screen.

Sparks literally fly when the characters touch hands, perfectly capturing the electrifying joys of first love. They’ve even managed to make leaves symbolise a touch of romance. From the beginning, these moments were outlined on the screen with the drawings finding their way onto the actual script. The series is inherently British but still manages to be universal, appealing to Netflix’s worldwide fanbase. There are even old Hollywood-style elements, such as going for milkshakes and to the arcade for dates. It’s very cinematic without ever losing its authentic touch and conversations between characters on Instagram are used to show its modern nature. 

The story is centred around the unexpected romance between shy, openly gay schoolboy, Charlie Spring, and the seemingly straight, popular rugby captain, Nick Nelson. After sitting next to each other during form at Truman High School for Boys, they begin to embark on a coming-of-age budding romance. They are joined by Charlie’s self-described “token straight friend”, Tao Xu (William Gao), sweet and quiet, Issac Henderson (Tobie Donovan), an enigmatic artist and trans woman, Elle Argent (Yasmin Finney) who has recently moved over to the Harvey Greene Grammar School for Girls. While at the school, Elle meets Darcy Olsson (Kizzy Edgell) and Tara Jones (Corinna Brown) who invite her to join their group. Aside from Kit Connor who is of Rocketman and His Dark Materials fame, most of the younger main cast are fresh faces starring in their breakout roles. At the other end of the scale, we have acting royalty, Stephen Fry as the booming voice of the Headmaster, and Olivia Coleman as Nick Nelson’s mother, Mrs. Nelson. 

Tracking the rites of teenage passage and the impossibilities of exploring one’s sexuality while you’re still a teenager, is most obviously seen by a confused Nick Nelson Googling bisexuality and taking an infamously unreliable (yet relatable) Buzzfeed quiz. Including this shows the difference in how teenagers learn about their sexuality and how it is explored in comparison to previous generations.

This is authentically shown, acutely through Charlie’s teacher Mr. Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade), who tells Charlie that when he liked a straight boy at school, “he just repressed it”. Stalking your new crush’s social media, overcoming insecurities, and navigating friendships are all touched upon, even how to let someone know you don’t feel the same. An aspect which we can all relate to is the fear of being alone, which is shown through the character of Tao Xu.

It’s surprising that given the characters of bullies, Harry Greene (Cormac Hyde-Corrin) and Ben Hope (Sebastian Croft) who consistently torment Charlie, it’s Tao over whom most fans voice their disapproval. Tao is fiercely loyal but like all humans, he has his faults. It’s this recognition and portrayal by Gao, which makes him refreshingly real. The plot is well-written and after each episode, you’re left itching to press the ‘next episode’ button as there’s never once a dull moment. Each episode lasts just under 25 minutes, making it the perfect series to binge as well and the high level of quality is sustained throughout. 

Image: Netflix

The connection between our leads Locke and Connor is clear and considering their first chemistry reads were completed over Zoom it shows how evident this must have been to the casting directors. The way they act with each other is natural and you become invested in their story. Working with an intimacy coordinator onset, it’s easy to imagine how comfortable the actors were on set and this shone through each episode. Whether it is purely down to acting or writing is perhaps indistinguishable, it appears to be a faultless combination of both. Naturally, their conversations sound like genuine discussions between young people, however, their visual connection on screen also makes you forget that they’re actors playing roles. They are simply Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson, as their real identities are left behind. That is the mark of a true actor. The scenes where they interact with the wider cast are just as memorable and show every facet of their characters. 

Image: Netflix

Homophobia and transphobia are themes that are maturely dealt with and work well. Hearing from the start that teachers kept suspending Elle due to her hair length and refusing to call her by her new name is something that is an unfortunate reality for some. Targeted by the rugby players and closeted bully, Ben, Charlie is often on the receiving end of consistent torment. Once Tara comes out via a picture on Instagram with her girlfriend, she has to cope with fellow students having a wrongly changed attitude towards her. It’s authentically portrayed and identifiable to others who have unfortunately had the same experience.

Despite being centred around a secondary school setting, most of the narratives are appropriate for any age. The only limitation which could be changed in seasons to come is the 12 rating, which confines how deeply they can explore serious topics. However, it does also work in the show’s favour as it does keep the overall lighthearted tone of the show.

What began as a beautifully illustrated story by Oseman has quickly been claimed and has influenced its fans. The moving scene where Nick comes out to his mother, has been used by fans to come out to their parents. Connor was made aware of it through a tweet and commented, “To me, that’s the most gratifying moment in my career, ever. For an 18-year-old to be able to have that effect on anyone’s life is unbelievable.” This scene is a testament to Kit’s acting talent as well as his ability to engage and have excellent dynamics with both up and coming and well-established actors.

Image: Netflix

The quietly confident series has undoubtedly changed the series game. The actors are actually age-appropriate for the characters they are playing, which makes the whole performance even more believable. Usually, series of this genre are fuelled by sex, alcohol, and substance abuse, however, this series is devoid of any of that. Instead, the precious screen time is dedicated to telling the stories of each character, making it feel like they truly aren’t there to tick boxes and follow stereotypes. This can also be illustrated by Charlie joining the rugby team to combat the stereotype that he is a ‘certain type of gay boy’ and this should be celebrated, as its a cliche which is long overdue.

Most importantly, the characters are given a happy ending which isn’t as commonplace with other series such as Sex Education and Euphoria, as they contribute to a trope that has existed across a multitude of tv shows. Heartstopper does still shed light on the difficulties, however, we are shown a happy healthy relationship by the end. The show approaching young love under the lens of queer optimism is fresh and has been well-received because it has filled a void in the market as no other shows really do.

It is very wholesome yet doesn’t leave a cloyingly sweet taste in your mouth which makes you feel ill. If anything, the characters are so well-rounded that you almost feel like you’ve gained a friend and are rooting for them throughout their trials and tribulations. Whether this approach will completely alter the trajectory of films and series to come is yet to be seen as only time will tell. It’s most certainly a promising beginning.

With two further seasons confirmed, there’s still plenty to explore in the Heartstopper world. Namely, Nick and Charlie’s relationship once they’ve become official to all of their peers, Elle and Tao’s blossoming relationship, and Charlie’s hinted eating disorder. The latter may be hard to tackle in-depth due to the rating but we shall see in seasons to come. As fans know, volume three of the series does feature a trip to Paris, so we can only hope that’ll make an appearance soon. 

Overall, the numbers don’t lie, it’s become a cult favourite for a reason. No matter what your stage of life or sexuality, you will easily be able to identify with an aspect of the show. It conveys gay representation and young love not only adequately but also relatably. The characters are perfectly cast and the writing flawlessly mirrors realistic dialogue, making it the perfect visual handbook, especially for young people. The only criticism that we could offer is that there were instantly more episodes to watch to see how the characters’ stories progress. 

Heartstopper is available to stream on Netflix.

Find out more about Heartstopper: Instagram | Website

Find out more about Alice Oseman: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | TikTok | YouTube | Website

About the author / 

Camilla Whitfield

Fourth Year BA English with Overseas Study | Music Editor | Manchester & Leipzig | Music & Gig Enthusiast

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