In the LGBTQ+ teen coming-of-age canon, a scene in which a closeted character googles “am i gay?” in the midst of a sexuality crisis has become a staple. This familiar moment of self-questioning is present in Heartstopper, but not in the way we are used to. It’s not the protagonist hesitantly spelling out G-A-Y, but the love interest. This subtle but meaningful change in Netflix’s 8-part show, derived from creator and writer Alice Oseman’s Tumblr-originated webcomics turned graphic novels, is indicative of the fresh breath of air that Heartstopper’s contemporary portrayal of LGBTQ+ youth brings to the genre.
Already out and proud, Charlie (newcomer Joe Locke) instantly makes a nice change from the closeted narratives that dominate queer coming-of-age stories. We watch as the dorky teen folds himself to fit on a school bench with his buddies, Tao (Will Gao) and Issac (Tobie Donovan)—the latter often found with an Oseman book in hand—as the trio recount their morning spent ducking away from bullies and popular kids in the corridors of Truham Grammar School for Boys. This circle of friends, each coming up against their own struggles in their formative teenage years, also includes Elle (Yasmin Finney), a transgender student who has moved to the neighbouring all-girls school.
When Charlie is allocated to his new form room, he’s seated beside Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), a rugby boy in the year above who radiates golden retriever energy. Timid greetings are exchanged between the two high schoolers, but Charlie is not interested in repressing his feelings (which appear as animated doodle butterflies that float across the screen). Across eight episodes, their friendship-turned-relationship is chronicled with considerate detail and heartwarming earnestness. Aimed at teenager viewers, with PG-rated love stares and awkward flirting, Heartstopper is a deeply wholesome portrait of navigating high school that’s devoid of booze, drugs, or sex. While this lack of edginess may dissuade some, the sweet romance that blossoms between Charlie and Nick, alongside the trials and tribulations of their friends, proves plenty engaging and never insubstantial.
While the show is largely a diverse, uplifting portrayal of LGBTQ+ youth, there is nevertheless antagonism that lingers in the Instagram comments on coming out posts, and animosity in snide jokes laced with homophobia laughed at by the popular lads. Impressively, however, the presence of these tie-wearing middle-class posh boys is secondary to the core characters who have been given dimensions that are wonderfully naturalistic. Also, the show departs from the cliche of adjacent high school stories (such as Hulu’s Love, Victor) in how Heartstopper regards sexuality with the maturity these stories have always deserved. The British context is also a nice change from the American high school setting teen TV is otherwise flooded with.
The soundtrack is comprised of nearly all women artists, including the likes of Wolf Alice, girl in red, Orla Gartland, and Maggie Rogers. Baby Queen’s catchy track “Colours of You,” written for the show, captures the electricity of teen spirit. This is paired with the rhythms of the internet generation, where silence is broken by the clacking of keyboards and the chimes of Instagram DMs coming and going. Phone screens glow in the darkness of night as messages are typed out only to be deleted when replies are second-guessed. This emotional grounding of understanding underlies Heartstopper, and ensures an in-touch, empathetic depiction that feels utterly genuine.
This authenticity also shines through in the Heartstopper’s casting. Daniel Edwards-Guy, the show’s casting director, has done a remarkable job in finding appropriately aged actors to bring these characters to life, something that still feels like a rarity. The bench for this exceptional ensemble of predominantly newcomers is so stacked that even Nick’s dog Nellie is the spit of her cartoon counterpart. Locke and Connor anchor the series though, making Nick and Charlie’s adorable, fumbling teenage awkwardness their own. Equally as charming are the distinctive personalities and identities of the wider cast. Elle is at the forefront as a vocal trans character, played by a Black trans actor, with a narrative not solely reduced to trauma or dysphoria; secret girlfriends Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) and Tara (Corinna Brown) are a young lesbian couple with natural chemistry that isn’t sexualised; Nick coming to terms with his bisexuality is a patient journey that is never reduced to him “picking a side.”
With the warmth of bright sunlight and the liveliness of mixed pastels and neons, Oseman’s deftly written script has a certain lightness about it that doesn’t sacrifice watchability, an achievement in itself. Heartstopper also finds these glints of gold with supportive parents who check in on their children’s feelings and pick them up at parties with a 10 p.m. curfew, as well as a handful of teachers who genuinely care about the wellbeing of their students. Grounded in natural dramatics, the show’s heartwarming dynamics resemble Oseman’s soft story of self-discovery. It is remarkable how director Euros Lyn has not only conserved the core message with clarity but created a visual ode to Oseman’s work; sequences in the series lift panels of the webcomic and bring them to life from the page with such clarity. Heartstopper is one of the best of page-to-screen adaptations in a number of years in its uniquely direct bridging from drawing to live action.
This first season adapts the opening two Heartstopper volumes, so there is a lot more to Nick and Charlie’s story left to explore. An open-armed embrace for queer youth, Heartstopper lays the strong foundations of what you can only hope will be the uplifting and inclusive depictions of queer characters for the next generation of viewers. Capturing the modern world and the intersection with the online as well as growing up today, Heartstopper is piercingly aware of the world it is showing on screen. Like Oseman’s novels, this pleasantly enjoyable show has more to say about young people’s mental health and what coming of age as part of the LGBTQ+ community today entails and with an already dedicated following about to grow, the show will hopefully get the chance to do so.
Heartstopper premieres Friday, April 22nd on Netflix.
Emily Maskell is a freelance culture and entertainment writer from the UK. You can keep up with her antics on Twitter: @EmMaskell
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