“Do you ever feel like you’re only doing things because everyone else is, and you’re scared to change?” This kind of sentiment is something often reflected among teenagers and young adults as they try to find their way in the world and who they are. This feeling is one of the many things Heartstopper strives to- and does so successfully- represent.
Heartstopper is a teen drama romance adapted from a series of graphic novels written by Alice Oseman. It centres around two boys, Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor) as they discover a connection between each other that might be more than friendship, and muddle through the trials and tribulations of teen life together.
One of the main goals of the series is to portray the unique and realistic sense of struggles that teenagers- especially LGBT teens- go through.
It gets it right from the start. The cast are all aged between 18-20 years old with the majority of them fresh out of school. In an era where teen drama is defined by the OTT antics of those in Euphoria, Heartstopper feels immediately more relatable for teens who will quickly see themselves in the stories and characters here.
Heartstopper is realistic, yet hopeful. Its portrayal of queer teenagers in modern-day school and the problems they may have to face feel authentic and rooted in truth. From the obnoxious bullies who often casually throw around homophobic terms as “jokes.” It also plays on the fear of figuring out your identity while there are so many negative things in the media telling you how hard it is to be who you are.
The romantic relationship at the centre between Nick and Charlie is sickeningly sweet, showing their mutual attraction. The chemistry between the two is fantastic, showing genuine interest but also the awkwardness of two teenagers getting into their first relationship and having no idea what to do. It’s sweet, endearing, and wholly real.
The series is best enjoyed if you have knowledge of the graphic novel the it is based on however, many of the series’ pivotal scenes are adapted word for word from the novels. Seeing these characters in motion allows us to view them and their actions in a new light. An early plot is Charlie’s secret relationship with closeted popular boy Ben (Sebastian Croft). He’s a character who is easy to hate. Thanks to his horrendous treatment and attitude towards Charlie. The first scene in the graphic novel is a secret rendezvous between the two, with Charlie seeming flustered and wanting to leave early. Episode one of the series opens in a similar way, however a slightly longer scene with new dialogue alongside fluid motion allows us to get a sense of Ben in a different way. After he wipes Charlie’s kiss from his lips, you can immediately see the shame and disgust he has at himself and the fact that he’s kissing Charlie. This small action that wouldn’t have been as easy to portray in the graphic novels ends up giving us a lot more insight into Ben as a character. While this doesn’t justify any of his actions throughout the series the new way he is written alongside Croft’s excellent performance gives Ben a new layer not present in the novels.
The series stays true to the themes and characters in the graphic novel but also expands on it and brings the story to life in a visceral and exciting way using clever lightning tricks and direction.
An example of this occurs during the second episode when Charlie’s burgeoning crush on Nick is exacerbated by the fact that he believes Nick to be straight. Nick sits down next to him in class, the screen darker. The edges of the screen begin to smudge with darkness in a style reminiscent of a graphic novel’s portrayal of emotion, and we instantly know that what we’re seeing is in Charlie’s mind, a manifestation of his anxieties and worries about liking someone who he believes can’t like him back. Nick’s entire face contorts into a picture of disgust as he looks at Charlie. “Sorry, I’m definitely straight, like, I only like girls. We should probably stop being friends if you feel like that.”
As he speaks, the camera zooms in to Nick as shadows are cast across his face. The dark smudges creep further and further into the screen, as a simple musical loop plays getting louder and louder. Kit Connor plays this scene perfectly, manifesting a dark version of Nick that’s not his character, but more so an anxious nightmare fuelled version of him.
As it starts to feel overwhelming, the real version of Nick speaks, breaking Charlie out of his anxiety spiral and back into the real world where Nick is kind, receptive, and accepting of Charlie. A golden hue is cast over the pair, signifying that everything is okay, and that the anxiety world isn’t real. Every single aspect of Heartstopper comes together in that one scene to portray it at its height, and that’s only a taste of all the fantastic moments the show manages to tie together.
All six of the main characters have incredible chemistry and friendships. Aside from Nick and Charlie, we have Tao (William Gao), Charlie’s best friend who is concerned about his newfound relationship. Elle, (Yasmin Finney) a friend of Charlie and Taos who recently transferred to Higgs all-girls school after coming out as trans. Tara, (Corinna Brown) Nick’s childhood crush, who is navigating her feelings of coming out alongside her girlfriend Darcy (Kizzy Edgell). The bonds and friendships between each of these characters all feel unique and fleshed out, allowing for different kinds of friendships and conversations to happen, all feeling exactly like how friends would be with each other. How Tara may talk to Nick is different to her interactions with Darcy or Elle, but they all feel real and it’s those connections that often help elevate the show above many of its contemporaries.
I really admired how the series was able to blend the graphic novel with live-action and still stay grounded with the characters. In the example I used earlier it is used to create tension and anxiety in one specific scene, but there are also places where it’s used to lighten the mood. Hand-drawn leaves swirl around Nick and Charlie in important romantic moments, or love hearts bounce out from a character when interacting with their crush. The graphics give it an air that makes certain scenes feel like home.
There aren’t many things to complain about when it comes to this tender adaptation, but one thing that does feel like a missed opportunity is Tobie Donovan’s character, Isaac. Isaac is a character created for the show intended to replace the character Aled from the comics due to conflicting story points with Alice Oseman’s novel “Radio Silence”. Issac has little to contribute to the conversation or overarching plotline. This is frustrating because when Isaac does show up, we can see his personality and that he may genuinely be an interesting character if he were given the room to be, he just isn’t. Hopefully, in the event of a second season, Isaac will be given his chance to shine, but until then he’ll remain a blemish, albeit a minor one, on the otherwise perfect face of the series.
Heartstopper is a wonderful coming of age romance that delicately and accurately portrays the difficulty of high school life, queer experiences, and everything in between that can be enjoyed by teens and adults alike looking for something new.
Heartstopper is available now for streaming on Netflix.