Inot many ways, Crusha love story starring Rowan Blanchard and Auli’I Cravalho, is like any other teen rom-com, and that’s part of what makes it exceptional.
At a time when anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric is increasingly discriminatory and violent, Crush, released today on Hulu, offers viewers a blissful hour and a half of smart, sweet, queer escapism. It follows Paige (Blanchard), an awkward lesbian artist attending the somewhat utopian Miller High, who is tasked with distilling her “happiest moment” into a painting for a college program application. Paige decides her longtime crush on popular track team co-captain Gabby (Isabella Ferreira) is the perfect inspiration, and an ultimatum from the school principal forcing her to join the team delivers. the perfect opportunity to get to know Gabby for real. But the coach pairs Paige with Gabby’s sister AJ (Cravalho) as a training partner. And suddenly, Paige finds herself working with AJ to unmask a mysterious artist who has spray painted school property, trying to figure out how to run more than five feet without falling on her face, and maybe just learn what love looks like.
If this all sounds a little complicated, that’s because it’s a teen rom-com, after all. It’s supposed to be a little overkill. And for screenwriters Casey Rackham and Kirsten King, sticking to some of the genre’s tropes was part of the goal. “We wanted a romantic comedy where they all happen to be extremely queer,” Rackham said.
Read more: The best romantic comedies for teens
More LGBTQ+ stories are being told on screen than ever before, and many of them focus on the difficult experience of coming out, an important but limited view of all that it means to be queer. In writing Crushthe first-time screenwriters and former colleagues at BuzzFeed hoped to deliver another slice of the experience: their film is designed to be comfort food for queer people, viewed through the lens of the genre they both love.
TIME spoke with the Los Angeles-based screenwriters about writing the rom-com they needed as high schoolers, the value of streaming, and what queer Hollywood storytellers owe each other.
What was your journey to write this story together?
Casey Rackham: We met at BuzzFeed, and then we started a queer writers’ group together. We were both obsessed with romantic comedies, and then there was that fateful, movie-like moment where we make eye contact and go, “Wait…should we?”
Kristen King: It was 2018, we just watched To all the boys I’ve loved beforewe were constantly reviewing 10 things i hate about you, Love & Basketball, some of those romantic comedies from the early 2000s and late 90s. And we were like, why don’t we have this for gay people? We’ve projected our romances onto stories of straight people our entire lives. We started describing [Crush] tonight. We said, this may never sell, but it may heal a part of our high school selves that needed it. It’s so exciting that people reacted to it, because it came from such a place of passion.
Were there moments in your own life that inspired moments in the film?
Racham: None of us can paint. We are both actively bad at it. But we were both on the right track!
King: When we first talked about this story, we set up a big whiteboard, drank a martini, and asked: What commonalities do we have in our high school experience? And we found the way, and being queer. Casey has a queer sister, I had twin best friends on the track team when I was in high school, and grew up a single mom. So there are little pieces of both of us in all of the characters’ stories.
I couldn’t stop thinking about my high school self and what watching this movie would have meant to me. And I know you and director Sammi Cohen have discussed this as well. How does it feel to have written a movie that so many people needed when they were kids, knowing it’s still needed today, in the age of the “Don’t Say Gay” bills “?
King: There are so many anti-LGBTQ laws out there right now. And Miller High is such a different place than a lot of high schools in the United States. For a large part of our population, this is not the reality. So that storyline was such a place of joy, where being queer was celebrated and where you could be the most popular girl in school. The plot is not centered on coming out or the trauma that might ensue.
Racham: To the right. On one side I saw Love, Simon with my mother. And I loved Love, Simon. But I also saw and understood the criticism that it was made for straight people. I wish my mom could watch something that wasn’t centered around a coming-out story, which shows that we’re okay. Kirsten and I have received messages from people saying, “It’s been hard for me where I live. I’m so excited to watch this. And that really means the world to us. According to all the laws we see, unfortunately we have a long way to go.
King: And we wanted it to be on a streamer, because if we’re being honest, it’s so hard if you live in a conservative neighborhood with your parents, to buy a ticket to a queer movie. That way someone can look at him in his room and imagine that life where he is comfortable and accepted. It’s really powerful.
The film also includes a lot of beautiful relationships, apart from romantic relationships. Paige’s relationship with her almost overly supportive mother, Angie, is so much fun. In one scene, AJ and Gabby have an honest and difficult conversation about balancing their love for each other and the pressure they feel of being in competition. Everything seems very grounded.
Racham: Kirsten and I have sisters, and I love writing about sisters. We both love that scene between AJ and Gabby. This is actually the first scene where Paige isn’t really involved, and it’s so real and raw, and something that all pairs of sisters have experienced, no matter their sexuality or the circumstances.
King: The dynamic between Paige and Angie — and oh my God, I can’t think of a better person to play Paige’s mother than Megan Mullally, just a gay icon — was really important to me. I grew up with just my mom in my house and was with her through all of these things, including breast cancer, and she was such a pillar of our household. That’s what I think of when I think of home. My mom didn’t get me from a sperm donor [like Paige’s mom]. But it was nice to imagine a single woman making that choice for herself. In our generation, it’s a conversation a lot of people have about whether having kids alone is something they want. Redefining that family image was really cool.
Which movies from the teen rom-com canon have inspired you the most?
King: We talked a lot about play it like Beckham, Love & Basketball, and all kinds of sports romance. I want Crush to be someone’s comfort watch, that movie they can watch to escape to when things go wrong. Weaving a story that makes people laugh and cry is hard! And that’s why we went through about 70 drafts of this script. Romantic comedies deserve more justice in our cultural canon.
Racham: We wrote Easter eggs into the film, and our director and production added some as well. When AJ first meets Paige, she holds The Taming of the Shrewwhich was the basis of 10 things i hate about you. And during the track and field meet, many signs list the names of the directors of romantic comedies. It was Sammi’s genius mind.
Do you have any advice for aspiring queer screenwriters and filmmakers?
Racham: We had to have a queer person to direct our film, which was the basis of what we wanted. And it’s a long process. You have to choose the people who will still care about [the project] all along the line.
King: You have meetings where you walk in and the executive says, Oh, sorry, we already have another gay [film on our slate]. And you’re like, Oh okay, it’s a two-man war movie, but of course, I totally see that. So you get those disheartening moments. We found producers who understood and defended our vision. But getting reps is so hard and getting your script read is so hard. Our group of writers have been working together for about five years and we share our resources. In this industry, there is a failure to protect your resources, but especially as queer people, we have to share, we have to present. We got this movie made, but we still need more trans-centered movies, we need people-of-color-centered movies. There is still a lot of work to be done and nuances to be added to queer cinema. I hope to be in a place where I can help people one day.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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