“Love, Victor” doesn’t rewrite the LGBTQ coming-of-age story. In fact, the series is a loose continuation in the world of 2018’s “Love, Simon”. While “Love, Simon” was celebrated, it also encountered a fair amount of criticism. The movie portrayed a fairly ideal coming out story, where the lead was white, wealthy, privileged, had very progressive parents and friends, and was generally loved and supported. This doesn’t mean it made Simon’s journey easy or safe in that story, and there is value in presenting a coming out story like this that is comparatively smooth.
A film like that can be both valuable and criticized in ways that are fair. “Love, Victor” begins to react to these elements, both in content and in having more room to explore as a series instead of a movie. Victor comes from a religious Latinx family, his father and grandfather are casually homophobic, his family doesn’t have money, and he sticks out as a working class kid in a wealthy prep school. But wait, there’s more: they’ve just moved from Texas to Atlanta, there are hidden family troubles, and Victor is the rock of the family on whom everyone depends. That means there’s not a lot of room for him to need something.
There’s a first step taken toward exploring these elements, but sometimes that first step is all that’s taken. The economic disparity is dropped pretty quickly from Victor’s life at school, as is any impact from his being Latino. These serious elements of who Victor is and the way they’d play out as a new kid in a new school are simply waved away in favor of more conventional teen romance plots.
The core element the series deals with – Victor coming to terms with being gay – remains the most important focus. That’s as it should be, and it’s well done. It just would’ve been refreshing to see the series explore more of the intersections with other aspects of privilege and the lack thereof.
The showrunners, Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, have said that more of this would’ve taken place if they’d known the show would be shifted to Hulu. It was originally planned for Disney Plus, and they strongly suggested they were required to limit certain topics for that streaming service, including the extent of their representation of gay romance…in their gay romance.
Despite this, the romance plots are well done. Perhaps because of some of those limitations imposed by Disney, they are thoroughly predictable. What you think will happen may take place a little faster or slower than you anticipated, but rest assured they will happen exactly the way you think. Ultimately, that’s OK in my book when it’s pulled off this charmingly. That’s really the most successful element of “Love, Victor”. It has charm and swagger to spare.
The casting here is some of the strongest I’ve ever seen in a coming-of-age series, or movie for that matter. Michael Cimino plays Victor and he ought to be destined for a lifetime of leading roles in whatever genre he wants. Certain actors are so endearing that their appeal can overwhelm their emotional beats. They could be giving a fine emotional performance, but you buy into what they’re feeling first and foremost because you’re riding their ability to captivate right into the next scene ahead of them.
From Merle Oberon to Tom Cruise (before we knew too much about him), it’s this idea of an actor who comes off without self-consciousness. Their character might be wildly anxious, but the actor just glides. This isn’t good or bad; it’s a quality. Like any other quality, it can be used well or used badly. It’s used very well in “Love, Victor”, and helps Cimino amplify parts of the story that might otherwise seem overly familiar.
Rachel Hilson plays Mia, Victor’s increasingly unsatisfied girlfriend while he privately figures out his sexuality. She’s doing the best acting in the whole series, and she is giving a seminar nearly every time she’s on-screen. Her performance is the level of acting where she can convey one emotion with one side of her face while communicating its lie with the opposite shoulder. That sounds like a funny description, but it’s literally her reaction in one scene and I had to skip back to re-watch it because it was such an astounding moment of character.
Hilson’s performance is spot-on in terms of giving us an unsteady and anxious teen. Hers is also the kind of exacting performance that lets the audience in on more of every scene than the surrounding characters are allowed. That combination of detail on her part with that effortless charm on Cimino’s part elevates every scene they do together from feeling cliché to being engrossing.
When one of them isn’t treating the other fairly, or they stack unfairnesses each in reaction to the other, it’s gripping because you can agree and disagree with their perspectives all at once. As a viewer, it’s a really enjoyable emotional complexity that isn’t usually pulled off well. This exemplifies how watching “Love, Victor” feels. It might not be as winding or complex as certain coming-of-age plots, but so many basic elements are done so well that it can feel more emotionally complex than more complicated plots that aren’t realized as thoroughly.
In fact, I’d say most of the men cast in “Love, Victor” get away with some degree of that effortless charm. Anthony Turpel as Felix is supposed to be a cringey, recluse nerd everyone at school avoids, which the show gets us to buy into because he all but winks at the camera and asks us to go along with it – never mind that Turpel looks a bit like young Kevin Bacon by way of Christian Slater’s mannerisms.
Similarly, Victor’s male love interest Benji is played by George Sear. Benji has a sparingly portrayed B-plot of his own, but the purpose of his character is basically to be as charming as possible in order to appeal to Victor. He also looks like a spot-on young Willem Dafoe. I don’t know what it says about the show that I kept spotting these similarities and it did nothing to interrupt the flow of the plot or my focus on it.
The dialogue is mostly good and lands the vast majority of its emotional moments and jokes, but the overall story writing is here and there – predictable, often ordinary, oddly paced, requiring parents to be alternately super-involved or inept and oblivious depending on the needs of the plot that moment. Some complicated things are conveyed in overly simplistic ways, and for the quality of production there’s the rare but glaring “this would feel more at home in a sitcom” moment. There is one very steady, reliable factor that tends to make up for all of this:
Victor’s parents, played by James Martinez and Ana Ortiz? Thoroughly charming, even as they confront marital troubles. Mia’s best friend Lake, played by Bebe Wood? Super charming. Mason Gooding’s rival and possibly misunderstood villain Andrew? Skeezy but charming. Victor’s depressed, loner sister Pilar? Charmingly depressed. His little brother Adrian basically just pops up once every episode or two to say something precocious, cute, and hilarious before completely disappearing from Victor’s life again. One-off joke character Wendy who exists in one episode? Basically steals the show in like five sentences.
I feel like Madeline Kahn in “Clue” trying to describe how charming and winning this show and everyone on it is and breaking down into the “Flames on the side of my face” monologue because language wasn’t made to capture this much of any one thing at once.
I think that’s ultimately the reason to watch “Love, Victor”. It’s not subversive or confrontational in the least, and Victor isn’t the first gay Latino protagonist. As a show that so successfully grounds itself in the pop mainstream, though, it’s taking the ground that has been broken and it’s – at least to some degree – making sure it isn’t covered back up.
You obviously know what I think of the show at this point. It’s not going to surprise you, but it is exceptionally feel-good, and it’s important to have feel-good stories about any marginalized community. I looked forward to every episode and enjoyed it, and I’ll watch the inevitable second season the week it comes out.
I want to be careful not to strain the boundaries I should recognize as a critic. I’m cis and straight and so can’t be the most qualified judge of the show’s success or the role that it plays. I can convey what it’s like to watch the show from a certain perspective, but there are experiences and perspectives to which I don’t have access that are the most valuable when talking about “Love, Victor”.
For instance, one of the criticisms that has been levied at the series is how it deals with white media concepts of being gay without engaging a responsibility to the history of LGBTQ activism of color. There’s a superb article on Polygon about this. It’s an exceptionally good read, especially if you’ve seen the show. As I said in the beginning, something can be valuable and criticized in ways that are fair. That article is a good place to begin listening to a wider conversation about the show, how coming out and being gay is presented in mainstream storytelling, and the ways that storytelling still need to be improved.
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