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Bros and the modern LGBTQ+ rom-com

Bros, the latest R-rated comedy from the Judd Apatow machine, arrives on September 30, and it bears an important distinction. Advertised as the first gay romantic comedy from a major studio with an entirely LGBTQ+ main cast, Bros stars Billy Eichner, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Nicholas Stoller. The film premiered at TIFF to overwhelmingly positive reception from critics — it currently sits at an impressive 95% based on 40 reviews and counting — and is tracking to gross between $10-15 million during its opening weekend. For comparison, Stoller’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall opened to $17.7 million during its 2008 opening weekend, eventually ending its run with a sizeable $105 million worldwide.

All in all, it seems like Bros will perform decently, if not spectacularly. However, considering the uphill battle it faces, “decent” might be good enough. A week before its release, the film is already getting review-bombed on IMDb by homophobes who seemingly can’t let the gays have a win.

And while there is certainly a market for an LGBTQ+ romantic comedy — by God, there is — it’s not like Bros has “four-quadrant” appeal. Certain places — hell, entire countries — will ban it, thus limiting its box office chances; Bros is running this race with one hand tied behind its back and one leg limping. And yet, it will compete. And what’s better, it will actually be competing at the multiplex, giving fellow new release Smile a run for its money.

In the cold, calculating world of Hollywood, money speaks. Bros is a risk for Universal — one of the last movie studios that still gamble on original content — and carries significant weight on its back. However, it’s also arriving at a pivotal moment for LGBTQ+ content and could ride the wave to the top. There have never been more LGBTQ+ stories on the small screen, and while the big one took its time to catch up, it might be getting there. Bros is just the latest and most “mainstream” entry into a genre that, fortunately, keeps increasing, but it’s not alone by any means. Indeed, the LGBTQ+ rom-com is alive and kicking, if not exactly thriving.

From humble beginnings

Two couples on the poster for the 2005 movie Imagine Me & You.

Romantic comedy is one of cinema’s safest genres. It offers few surprises and sticks to a classic formula that seldom ventures out of its self-imposed limits. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and the genre has been around since the dawn of the industry, cementing itself as one of the pillars upon which Hollywood stands.

Straight love stories are common and bountiful in Hollywood. Most of the best rom-coms have a beautiful woman and a handsome man as the stars, providing all the sweetness necessary to induce a diabetic coma. From the all-time greats like The Philadelphia Story and When Harry Met Sally to the guilty pleasures we can’t get enough of, like 27 Dresses and She’s All That, the rom-com is a constant, a reliable escape of fluff and shameless indulgence. And for years, it was solely limited to straight couples. The gays were there, of course, as walking handbags or sassy shoulders for the beautiful woman to cry on; however, they were never the stars. They were tropes, meant to add color to a world that didn’t need it but sure looked pretty with the extra touch.

How can you do fluff when some of these people are afraid to even exist?

LGBTQ+ stories mainly existed in the tortuous, perpetually unhappy world of drama, where boys died, and girls didn’t even get a story of their own. Indeed, LGBTQ+ dramas were impactful but harrowing, meant to shine a light on the community’s hardships but ending up as unwilling cautionary tales against the lifestyle they supposedly showcased. The rom-com rules of low-stakes-high-reward didn’t apply for LGBTQ+ stories; the gays’ stakes were always high because that was the reality (and still is for many). How can you do fluff when some of these people are afraid to even exist?

Imagine Me & You Trailer [HD]

Early LGBTQ+ rom-coms felt alien, bizarre experiments that neither fit the rom-com bill nor the distressing typical gay fare. 2005’s Imagine Me & You, starring a post-Coyote Ugly Piper Perabo and a pre-Game of Thrones Lena Headey, was among the first LGBTQ+ films that followed the classic rom-com formula, to its ultimate detriment. Decried for its supposed adherence to the genre’s tropes, the film failed to impress critics, who expected the same “depth” other LGBTQ+ films offered, or fans, who might’ve not understood why Perabo’s character didn’t stay with Matthew Goode. Under a 2022 eye, Imagine Me & You is nothing short of a trailblazer, an unashamedly positive story with romance overflowing from every scene. Ironically, its faithfulness to the genre’s conventions makes it unique, especially at the time of its original release.

The 2004 unicorn Touch of Pink was progressive, even by today’s standards. Featuring a gay love story between a Muslim and a Caucasian man, the film includes everything from romantic and ridiculous tropes to the spirit of Cary Grant, played by the incredible Kyle MacLachlan. Other contemporary examples, such as Kissing Jessica Stein and Wedding Wars, portrayed LGBTQ+ relationships positively, abandoning tragedy in favor of a cheerful portrayal of gay life. They might not have been 100% true, but no one goes into a rom-com searching for absolute truth. Whereas Hollywood insisted on depicting the gritty realities of the LGBTQ+ lifestyle, these few romantic comedies showed that there was indeed a space for a fluffy love story amidst all the hardship.

The modern LGBTQ+ rom-com

Andrew hangs out with his friends in My fake Boyfriend.

Nowadays, the gays have something that used to elude them: opportunity. Gone are the times when Hollywood limited the community to one corner; the LGBTQ+ crowd now has the chance to star in the usual harrowing dramas, plus coming-of-age stories, raunchy comedies, and even silly rom-coms. LGBTQ+ stories aren’t exactly mainstream yet, and they might never be, but at least there’s a conscious effort to make them happen.

It’s not all peaches and cream. There’s still room for thoughtful and gritty exploration into the often painful realities of being part of the LGBTQ+ community in a world with corners that keep finding excuses to exclude us. And yet, the days where “bury your gays” was the norm seem to be over for good, and thank God for that. Modern LGBTQ+ dramas mix the pain, confusion, and anger that might come with our LGBTQ+ identity with the thrill and hope of romance, creating a unique genre that thrives on the universal language of love. Films like Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight offer hyper-realistic but tender, meaningful, powerful, and ultimately hopeful love stories about individuals finding comfort, understanding, and solace in each other.

FIRE ISLAND | "I’m a Doctor" Clip | Searchlight Pictures

The traditional rom-com is also learning to adapt the LGBTQ+ lifestyle into its all-inclusive motto. This year’s Fire Island, yet another updating of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, offered everything fans expect from an Austen-related work, a gay romp and, more importantly, a rom-com. Recent examples like The Thing About Harry, Happiest Season, My Fake Boyfriend, and Single All the Way offer the same cozy feeling and, dare I say it, mindless entertainment that one looks forward to in the traditional Reese Witherspoon vehicle.

We are approaching the point where LGBTQ+ rom-coms are not the rare entry into the genre but one more in the annual pile. Is it a victory to say LGBTQ+ rom-coms are as run-of-the-mill and ridiculous as the straight ones we’ve been fed for so long? Who knows? Perhaps? Probably? The fact remains that they are here, and they are queer; that’s more than we’ve ever had. There’s fun to find in them, so who are we to discount them? Enjoy them for what they are because it’s time we got in on the mindless fun.

The thrill of first love

Nick and Charlie smile in a scene from Heartstopper.

Coming to terms with one’s sexuality is among the hardest things we can do, especially during our teenage years, a time that’s already challenging enough. Straight teenagers had an entire romantic sub-genre to explore their teen dreams and fantasies, but LGBTQ+ individuals spent years without representation. Luckily for them, film and television are going all-in on LGBTQ+ stories, betting on projects focusing on the growing pains and the challenges of coming out and of age.

Straight teenagers had an entire romantic sub-genre to explore their teen dreams and fantasies, but LGBTQ+ individuals spent years without representation.

The cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader paved the way for many future teen rom-coms, but the early 2010s took things to the next level. While teen shows of the noughties had the obligatory gay character, film and tv started bringing this unsung figure to the spotlight in recent years, with projects like Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove showcasing the thrill of first love.

These stories are often complicated, riddled with the complexities of coming to terms with the characters’ sexuality while dealing with the confusing feelings that accompany romance’s first bloom. This year’s Heartstopper was, in many ways, the crowning achievement of LGBTQ+ teen romance, a project that could finally stand beside the Clueless and 10 Things About Yous of this world as a meaningful entry with a reach that extended far beyond its initial premise and target audience.

Heartstopper Season 2 Is Officially In Production ? | Netflix

The teenage genre is as meaningful to cinema as any other, and the fact that LGBTQ+ stories are starting to carve a place for themselves within it is worthy of celebration. LGBTQ+ teens can now see themselves on screen, and there’s power in that kind of representation. They might not save any lives, but these films and shows can help some confused 16-year-old feel less lonely and afraid, giving them hope and maybe even making things a little bit better. That is the power of movies.

And where to from here?

Bobby and Aron looking confused and squinting their eyes int he 2022 film Bros.

Bros will have its time under the sun this weekend and will have two weeks before it faces any real competition in the form of Halloween Ends. Make no mistake, this film will have a lot to prove, and many will insist it justifies its existence. But the mere fact it exists is already a win. Unlike previous LGBTQ+ stories that attempted to make the community more palatable for mainstream audiences, films Bros and Fire Island are here to celebrate it, capturing our experiences without compromising or diluting them.

Will they pave the way for other similar entries into the rom-com legacy? The genre is certainly flexible enough to support these new and vibrant additions; furthermore, audiences are hungry for films like these, which no longer focus on the otherness of our situations but rather on the uniqueness of it all. If we want LGBTQ+ stories to become commonplace in film and television, supporting projects like Bros, Fire Island, and Uncoupled should be the first step.

Bros Exclusive Featurette - A Look Inside (2022)

The LGBTQ+ community and its allies are a force to be reckoned with; how else would RuPaul’s Drag Race have become the sensation it is today? There’s power in our choices, and we should wield it to support those stories that are worth it. However, even if Bros underwhelms or performs below expectations, it won’t be the end of LGBTQ+ rom-com representation. The door is open, and it will stay open.

Bros debuts in theaters nationwide September 30.

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