Crush (2022)

Must every Gen Z movie be so aggressively online? I watched this, Not Okay, and Status Update within a week, and while Crush might be the least gear-grindingly social media-pandering of the bunch, it still has its fair share of app screenshots and banter. I stomached it pretty well to the point that I stopped noticing it by the end of the movie (or maybe it just gradually toned down), but you have been duly warned.

Next, some credit where credit is due: Crush is the first queer teen romantic comedies I’ve ever seen where coming out is not one of the major themes. If nothing else, it adds some freshness and variety to a genre addicted to its repetitive tropes (though I guess the milestone is that it gets to shamelessly use those tropes regardless of sexuality).

Like so many before it, Crush is about a high school senior trying to find, or at least affirm, her personal identity before she heads off to college. Paige (Rowan Blanchard) desperately wants to be an artist, and her dream school is Cal Arts, which has a summer program. The application states she must include a piece capturing her “happiest moment.” Nothing comes to mind, thus she determines to figure out what that moment is (or, perhaps, experience it) prior to the application’s deadline.

Her quest is complicated when she is falsely accused of being a local graffiti artist named “KingPun,” a cheap Banksy knockoff who leaves bad wordplay-related vandalism around the school. Due to cinematic contrivance, she needs to figure out KingPun’s true identity or else be suspended and tank her shot at Cal Arts.

Crush’s love triangle kicks off when Paige joins the track team to get closer to her longtime crush, Gabriela (Isabella Ferreira). Gabriela’s reserved, tomboyish sister AJ (Auli’i Cravalho) gets tasked with training Paige, at which point which sparks fly.

AJ is easily the film’s most interesting and best developed character, which the film seems to realize at about its halfway point when it starts giving her more and more scenes, to the point that she feels like a co-lead. It certainly helps that Cravalho delivers the film’s best performance by a mile, lived-in and vulnerable and funny.

By contrast, Paige gets almost no development other than her romantic arc. She doesn’t really grow or learn much about herself, and basically gets the things she wanted in the beginning of the film without much complication. Blanchard’s performance is serviceable but prosaic, with no hidden depth.

Crush is a movie filled with generous characters. This niceness makes for a pleasant and endearing hangout vibe, but also undercuts the film’s drama. By the requisite third act breakup, everyone has laid their cards on the table and deferred to the needs of others, making the short-term separation before the happy ending feel especially artificial and forced. The central mystery is also a pretty major dud: the true identity of KingPun is obvious from basically the first scene (to the point that it plays almost like dramatic irony), and its eventual revelation is a total anticlimax.

And yet I still had a good time watching Crush. There’s authentic chemistry between much of the cast, especially Blanchard and Cravalho. That goes a long way paving over any writing hiccups in a film like this. If a romcom can choke me up and give me butterflies when its characters finally get together, it is doing quite a bit right.

The film fills its fringes with side characters that alternate between grating and amusing. Paige’s sex-positive mom (Megan Mullally) flirts relentlessly with the track coach (Aasif Mandvi). Mullally is clearly the comedian with the best chops on cast, chewing through some real hit or miss material. And Mandvi especially has some hysterical line-readings as he grapples with Mullally’s horniness. I love when teen movies give the grown ups some fun stuff to do.

Slightly less fun are Dillon (Tyler Alvarez) and Stacey (Teala Dunn) as Paige’s best friends. Their dynamic is funny on the surface, a madly-in-lust power couple running for class president against each other, but the one joke about competitive friskiness wears old.

Its conflict and protagonist issues are fundamental enough that I can’t quite call Crush a good movie, but I was suitably charmed for the duration, even if plenty of its banter occasionally made me feel every one of my 34 years.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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