If you are an LGBTQI+ person of a certain age, then the idea of finding and falling in love with someone super special at high school, and being left alive, metaphorically at least, to tell the tale, seems the stuff of myth and legend.
In fact, so badly were many of us bullied and made to feel significantly lesser because we were queer – even when, like me, that awareness was accompanied, and complicated, by a panic that who I was did not square with what my Christian faith said I was allowed to be – that even just being allowed to be ourselves, let alone in loving lock step with someone else, like all the straight kids, was so fantastical as to not being worth thinking about it.
Even worse, while we knew who we were and the love we wanted with a boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other was no different in any way from what any of our straight peers enjoyed, being just as joyfully uplifting and self-affirming as what they had, we were told time and again that we were broken, wrong, strange and terrible.
Thank god then for modern shows like Heartstopper, based on Alice Oseman’s gloriously wonderful series of graphic novels, which not only holds up queer love as something precious, life energising and just plain adorable, but gives nascent queer people a metric ton of much-needed affirmation that who ands how they love is as beautiful as the way anyone else does.
That is a tremendous and endlessly rich gift and throughout the eight, perfectly cast, perfectly acted and beautifully well-written episodes, we are privileged to see love find its first feet as 14/15-year-old Charlie Spring (Joe Locke), who has been out at his school, and consequently suffering for it from the bigoted bullies, for a year or so (not completely by choice) and one-year-older rugby hero, Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) discover that they are perfectly made for each other.
If their buoyantly fizzy love, which comes with all the challenges and joys of any relationship, isn’t enough (and it is), we are treated, and really that is the only word for a series so upliftingly alive and heartwarmingly sweet as this, to Charlie’s super close and adorably protective friend, the eternally upbeat (well, mostly) Tao Xu (William Gao) and Elle Argent (Yasmin Finney), the former quite straight, the latter a mostly self-confident young trans woman, discovering, but not quite yet getting to the point where they act on it, that theirs is a love too for the ages.
But wait there’s more!
At Elle’s new all-girls school, which she’s attending to escape the bullying of the brutish homophobes at Charlie, Nick and Tao’s all-boys school, she becomes friends with two BFFs, Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), who later reveal they are lesbians and together, another addition to the rainbow found family which bolsters Heartstopper‘s place as a supportively inclusive place to be.
What makes the show such a sight for LGBTQI+ sore eyes is that it doesn’t pretend that all this loved-upness and close friendship exists in some sort of idyllic vacuum.
Charlie does encounter some truly searing moments, sometimes at the hands, rather ironically, of Nick’s rugby teammates – they aren’t out about their relationship and so Nick agonisingly has to stay quiet about Charlie’s treatment though there are times when he simply can’t, especially as his friendship circle orients far more to Charlie and his friends and away from people with whom he intrinsically has little in common – and because of Ben (Sebastian Croft), who’s still figuring out his sexuality and doesn’t want he and Charlie’s relationship to be even remotely public knowledge.
Tara and Darcie also experience some significant blowback when they come out too, with Heartstopper nor pretending that all the inclusiveness and love which is its beating soul, means that nothing bad ever happens.
It does BUT, and this is important, it doesn’t derail who Charlie and Nick are, nor Tara & Darcie, or Tao and Elle,nor what they authentically do, and surrounded by supportive parents (Charlie’s dad – Joseph Balderrama – or Nick’s mum, played to lovingly supportive perfection by Olivia Colman) and friends like quiet but sweet Isaac (Tobie Donovan), they come out the other side because they are loved and supported, privately and publicly (in ways a young me could only ever dream about) and affirmed as valid, beautiful young adults which is, of course, precisely what they are.
If you see the words “adorable” and “sweet” bandied about repeatedly to describe to Heartstopper, do not for a second think that is some sort of backhanded compliment.
The fact is that it is both of those things, and then some, partly because the source material embodies that spirit and feel – Oseman wrote the series and it even uses some of the illustrative motifs she employed such as floating leaves and sparks of connection and interest – but also because the makers of the series have clearly tried to live out how the fact that falling in love for n LGBTQI+ person is no different to how it feels for anyone else.
There’s the do-they, don’t-they dynamic, the hesitant, awkward broaching of attraction, the fumbling towards friendship and intimacy and the sheer exultation of it all leading somewhere utterly, mesmerisingly, romantically wonderful.
It doesn’t matter who you are – that feels like winning the lottery, getting the best job ever and buying your dream house all at once.
That we get to see that happen for Charlie, who has a huge weight of not ever fitting in sitting on his slight, nerdy shoulders, and Nick, who is at first confused and then thrilled by his bisexuality and unexpected attraction to Charlie, is one of the great transcendent joys of this warm hug of a show.
Locke in particular as Charlie is that exhilaration of new love personified, the sheer delight of finding his presumably one-sided attraction to Nick reciprocated, written all over his face in ways that make your heart feel like bursting.
Nick is quieter and not as comfortable yet in his queer skin, but he too looks like the proverbial cat that got the cream, most especially so when he and Charlie on their first real date at the beach (final episode “Boyfriend”) confirm their love and commitment to each other and he runs into the water, loudly proclaiming his romantic interest in another man.
It doesn’t matter whether you are straight, queer and somewhere on gloriously complex spectrum of human sexuality, you will identify with the universality of the sheer joy of falling in love – Heartstopper bottles it up, celebrates it and writes it heartfelt celebration in sometime literal fireworks across the sky.
Even more importantly, it does all that from an avowedly queer perspective which is good for the heart of older queer people who wish it could’ve been like that for them, and for those smack bang in Charlie and Nick’s age group, all of us able to finally see our love, in all its rich diversity and romantic splendour reflected back at us in ways that make us dance inside, leap into the air with joy and sigh with the sheer wonder and thrill of knowing that love is ours and it’s as adorably wonderful as we’d hoped it would be.