Crush debuts on Hulu on April 29, 2022.
As high school romance and coming-of-age stories go, Crush is among those with the lowest of stakes — mostly because it aims for a shockingly low bar. It’s a bare-minimum sort of movie, with few narrative and aesthetic objectives beyond letting its delightful young cast play around with some decently fun, profanity-laden banter (and letting its older cast members try to do the same, though they don’t quite hit the mark). It follows a young artist, Paige (Rowan Blanchard), who reluctantly ends up on her school’s athletics team alongside two sisters, Gabby (Isabella Ferreira) – on whom she’s had a crush for ages – and AJ (Auliʻi Cravalho), who proves to be more alluring than Paige realized, but even this description gives the movie a little too much credit, given its lack of discernible conflict (or discernible anything) for most of its runtime.
A colorful introductory montage opens the movie with a litany of hand-drawn social media hallmarks — sketched Instagram feeds and the like — even though both Paige’s artwork and the presence of social media feel like passing concerns. Paige’s own introduction certainly paints her as someone for whom art is of the utmost importance (it’s how she claims to see the world, and she hopes to get into a summer program at CalArts), but these elements of her story seem to constantly fade away. The plot initially revolves around Paige’s school suspecting her of being a notorious graffiti artist, who tags the school walls and boasts about it online, so to avoid suspension (and to ensure her summer admission), she joins the track team while occasionally trying to suss out the real culprit. However, these ideas enter and exit the fray both quickly and casually, with seemingly little importance, as the film soon switches focus, embodying an adult’s deeply removed and uninvolved idea of a teenager’s crush.
It has one, singular artistic flourish when depicting this: when her longtime crush Gabby walks into the room, Paige’s line of sight becomes filled with sprays of water colors, enveloping the space around Gabby, but this is the only thing approaching a genuine emotion — or an intense, hormonally driven teenage feeling — in the entire film. It’s the one visual trick in its bag, the one it uses the most, and yet, it doesn’t seem to use it nearly enough, given that nearly every other aspect of Crush is spoken, rather than felt.
As Paige, Blanchard proves to be an upbeat mix of awkward and sincere; Paige is a sweetheart, though few characters around her feel particularly fleshed out beyond the jokes with which they’re saddled. Her mother, Angie (Megan Mullally), is supportive of her sexuality, and sex-positive to an amusingly over-compensating degree, to the point of gifting her sex toys. However, the humor of their relationship rests on this singular trait, which also seems to define Angie even outside her dynamic with Paige — for instance, in her brief but forward fling with Paige’s track coach, Murray (Aasif Mandvi doing his best John Turturro). Similarly, Paige’s best friend, Dillon (Tyler Alvarez), is involved with a pair of running gags, one in which he and his girlfriend, Stacey (Teala Dunn), can’t keep their hands off each other, and another in which they compete for the position of Class President, but there’s little to his relationship with Paige beyond the plot-dictated role of a cinematic “best friend,” a silhouette who provides occasional feedback.
Among the supporting cast, Cravalho is perhaps the only actor whose charisma is allowed to shine. The Moana star creates just enough allure and vulnerability to make up for the fact that, like most other characters in Crush, AJ barely exists as a real person outside her lines of dialogue — which are either about how mysterious she seems, or about the truth that supposedly lies beneath that façade — because little by way of behavior or action allows the character to externalize this duality, though Cravalho certainly tries. Unfortunately, there’s little she can do to make up for the fact that AJ and Gabby don’t often feel like sisters — mostly because they barely interact on screen — and that Paige’s eventual, dueling crushes on them don’t create much friction for them, or for Paige, or for anyone, until well over an hour into the film’s 90-minute runtime.
For that hour and change, the lack of anything resembling drama results in Paige’s own point of view — and her own crushes! — feeling largely unimportant, even though it’s all the characters seem to talk about as they trudge from one scene to the next. To teenagers, these feelings can be monumental, but in Crush, they may as well be talking about homework. Blanchard and Cravalho have a genuine chemistry on occasion, but the film doesn’t often let it play out, physically or emotionally, in anything more than a fleeting, fan-fiction-prompt sense of them sharing a bed on a school trip, a scene whose palpable tension is cut short and leads nowhere in the story.
Crush is certainly refreshing on paper, as a teenage film in which queerness is a casual norm, and a nominally diverse one at that, with characters whose labels exist all across the gender and sexual spectrums, and who are widely accepted — its cliques and “types” buck the trends that have been held over in Hollywood high school films since the ’80s — but it can’t help but feel trepidatious in its depictions of actual queer sexuality, despite this being the central premise. While straight couple Dillon and Stacey’s non-stop, sloppy, borderline sadomasochistic make-out sessions are a running gag, they’re also the only ones on screen who consistently act like actual teenagers with any real, burgeoning sexuality or romantic feelings.
The film doesn’t “need” to depict its queer characters getting intimate — the same way it doesn’t “need” to do anything of note (and often doesn’t) — but little in the way they behave, and little in the way the camera captures them or their perspectives, accentuates anything they might actually be experiencing, given its largely stilted and removed approach to sex and romance. A flashback of Paige meeting Gabby in elementary school portrays the genesis of her innocent, childhood crush; nearly a decade later, the film’s depiction of her feelings doesn’t seem to have evolved or grown more complicated, even as her attention switches to AJ.
By the time Crush loops around to a more traditional rom-com narrative with a public reconciliation, it has long since fizzled out. It doesn’t feel made for anyone in particular, except perhaps people champing at the bit for a wider array of visibility on paper, even if in practice, it leads to little nuance, humor, or real humanity. It also, unfortunately, now exists as reassurance that parent distributor Disney is willing to portray nominal representation, even as it goes back and forth on supporting anti-LGBTQ legislation. Which, of course, is not to implicate Crush’s well-meaning filmmakers in this corporate malpractice, but at the end of the day, it’s the kind of film on which the Mouse House could easily hang its hat before its next big gaffe.