Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Do you have queer friends? You more than likely do, though they very well might have grown up trying to remain hidden, out of sight. That was the case for many of us who are part of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Then came Heartstopper, only three weeks ago released on Netflix, and many of us felt joy, and cheer, and began to dream again, to hope, and heal.
Heartstopper is not a typical young adult romance by any means. As someone who has worked with LGBTQ+ youth for over three decades, I approached this show as something that might become part of my discussions with young people as they work to navigate a world that is still harshly homophobic and transphobic at times. But then the story of Charlie and Nick finding each other began to speak to me about hurts and tears I had forgotten. it further tapped into hope and joy I never imagined possible.
Perhaps my reflections can help others as this show has helped me.
Here’s a story with no drugs, no alcohol, no sex, no swearing, and no tantrums or arguments with parents.
The series, in eight short episodes, is based on webcomics that became graphic novels by Alice Oseman, “an award-winning author, illustrator, and screenwriter, and was born in 1994 in Kent, England.” The series has catapulted its young cast to quick fame, Joe Locke as Charlie Spring, Kit Connor as Nick Nelson, Yasmin Finney as Elle Argent, Sebastian Croft as Ben Hope, William Gao as Tao Xu, Corrina Brown as Tara Jones, Cormac Hyde-Corrin as Harry Greene, Kizzy Edgell as Darcy Olsson, Georgina Rich as Charlie’s mother Jane, Jenny Walzer as Charlie’s sister Victoria “Tori” Spring, and Olivia Coleman as Sarah Nelson, Nick’s mother.
The plot of Heartstopper is simple as described by Alice Oseman on her website, “Boy meets boy. Boys become friends. Boys fall in love.” There’s a breathy, heartstopping moment when Charlie and Nick meet. And the story moves on from there. Each becomes the heartstopper of the other.
That’s it. It’s that simple.
So what does this show bring us that speaks so deeply not only to young people still in school but also to young adults, middle-aged adults, and those of us approaching our older years?
The story presents us with hope and healing. We’re not living vicariously through Nick and Charlie, but their love, their romance, speaks to us of what might have been, and what still can be.
“I wish I’d met you when I was younger,” Nick tells Charlie.
I’ve read reflections from former students, well into their adult lives, who find themselves strangely and delightfully moved by this story. Some have watched the series many times, seeing themselves as they were or as they could have been. One was nice enough to tell me that I was the art teacher, Mr. Ajayi, for him when he was in high school.
“Back in [high school], things weren’t where we’d all like them to be, but you will always stand out as this person at Marian for me and it’s who I strive to be for the kids at my school,” he told me, linking his comments to this article.
That moved me incredibly.
This former student, now well-established in his own teaching career, puts all of this very well, “The beauty of this show has exposed so many aches I didn’t know were still there, that I probably never dealt with. A lot of the sadness is in realizing how much fundamental growth so many of us never got to have as adolescents and how many delays that cascaded later.”
He comments further on the show:
“I’ve been watching it pretty much on a loop for a week. It’s the most positive, healthy portrayal of and for queer youth I’ve ever seen. It has optimism in the face of the rough patches. It models ideal behavior when faced with obstacles. And it’s happy.
“It’s at once reassuring and is deeply therapeutic. But it’s also a little hard for everyone who never had a show like this because it’s talking to and healing something that a lot of us didn’t realize was still broken.
“I definitely never saw my experience of the world represented when I was 15. I am deeply grateful that the kids I work with can not only see themselves but also see healthy modeling for coping with what they face.
“Every time Nick holds his breath, I remember holding mine. And a lot of us still hold it from time to time. So, I’m happy/sad watching it, but overjoyed it’s there for kids.
“I really do encourage everyone to watch it.”
There’s a lovely simplicity when Nick comes out to his Mum, played by Academy Award-winning actress Olivia Coleman. We’re told that Ms. Coleman was so taken with Kit Connor’s sincerity in this scene that she cried for real during a rehearsal and had to be reminded of her lines, which in turn caused Kit Connor to “step up his game,” as he said.
“We normally sort of, before every scene, we read it through 50 percent. We were just reading it through and then suddenly Olivia just started crying and at first, I was thinking ‘god she’s just really good I need to step up my game massively here.'” Connor said.
All of which led to one of the most touching scenes ever recorded for queer individuals, that moment when we hoped our parents would accept us as we are, without condition. Olivia Coleman’s response and embrace of her son are what we all longed for, perhaps. Some of us received it, many of us never did. But, at this moment, in this show, we all feel the love. We all feel the acceptance. And we all touch tears inside we had buried long ago as the child and adult inside heal just a bit more.
And then we watch the series again.
Alice Oseman’s story is thus cathartic and therapeutic and healing on so many levels.
This moment, too, is a heartstopper.
The show is full of so-called “Easter Eggs” that seem accidental at first watch. Later, we learn that they were cleverly inserted into each scene. Without giving away the secrets of the whole show, just notice the brief rainbow that appears when Charlie first sees Nick in his form room. When I saw the show the first time through, I dismissed the moment as glare, perhaps cinematography done quickly or without care. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we read more about this treasure-of-a-series, we learn that the lighting, the colors, all of them throughout the series, are intentional and well-planned. As Alice Osemen said as far back as December 2021:
“I love the Heartstopper show. Like the direction and lighting and colors and music and costume and set design and all that stuff. It’s so joyful and it makes me very happy. Just thought you ought to know.”
And that’s the remarkable truth of Heartstopper: the whole story is “joyful” and “happy”. Each episode, which does include typical challenges young gay, bisexual, lesbian, or trans teens might face, each episode brings us up a notch. We move up with the characters to a place of more joy, color, hope, and happiness. We travel with Nick and Charlie and Elle and Tao and Tara and Darcy — and even Ben and Harry — through their journeys of discovery and love, sadness, and joy. And we laugh. And we cry. And we heal.
And then we want to do it again.
Travel with them again.
And we return to our lives, our worlds, our jobs, schools, and homes, with more dreams, hope, healing, and cheer.
To all of my fellow Heartstopper fans out there, “Hi!”
Errata: The names of two cast members were corrected on May 20, 2022, after a letter from a reader. Georgina Rich plays Charlie’s mother Jane, and Jenny Walzer plays Charlie’s sister Victoria “Tori” Spring. We regret the error.