The new Netflix teen drama doesn’t stray too far away from its roots in the classic American coming-of-age stories. Written and directed by Alice Wu, this movie is set in the predominantly white rural town of Squahamish. The story is simple, it’s shown very simply, it’s shot very beautifully, and it ends very pleasantly. This is your classic Netflix teen movie. It will make you feel all gooey and warm inside.
Ellie Chu is almost alienated in her town and school. She doesn’t have friends, except what seems to be an English teacher at the beginning of the movie. The English teacher, true to the teen movie stereotype, takes a special interest in her, and pushes her to pursue better things. Ellie mostly writes homework essays for her friends for money, writing multiple iterations of the same topic is quite a skill. When Paul Munsky, a football player, approaches her, she thinks it’s for homework again. But here’s the twist. He wants her help to write love letters to the very beautiful Aster Flores.
Paul Munsky is as adorable, sweet and kind as it gets. He’s your average well-mannered, well-intentioned Christian boy. The kind who’ll make an effort by googling How to know you’re gay to understand his friend. Munsky and Chu soon become really good friends. He even fights back against people who make fun of her. The only problem here is that it seems both of them are in love with the same person. As kind and nice as Munsky is, he isn’t really well read, nor does he think about things with the same intensity that Chu and Flores seems to. It’s Chu who writes long letters on his behalf, who texts with her on his behalf. They talk about art and paintings and books, things that are beyond Munsky.
This becomes plenty clear when Munsky and Flores finally decide to meet. But Munsky has a charm about him and as awkward as it gets when he says the Nazis, he still seems to be able to charm Flores who is currently with your average jock, rich, arrogant boyfriend who doesn’t really see her. Not in the way that Munsky seems to, and not even close to the way that Chu does. Meanwhile, Munsky and Chu hang out at her place and her father is another interesting character in the show. He’s a man with a PhD in Engineering who is unable to progress from his position as Station Master and Signalman because of his weak English. Chu has been helping him out with this job and doesn’t want to leave Squahamish for this very reason.
Things happen, complicated things. Everyone likes everyone. Everyone is confused about everything. Only Ellie Chu seems to know for sure who she likes and who she doesn’t. There is a spectacularly uncomfortable scene set in a church which will give everyone who watches it secondhand embarrassment. But things slowly pan out from there. Chu decides to apply to the college that her English teacher wants her to, Munsky is perfecting his recipes, and Flores is working on her art. No one ends up together, as is already warned earlier on in the movie because there are colleges to attend, and things to be figured out. This is a respite from your usual teen fare.
Squahamish is pale and the tone of the movie is reflected in the landscape. It’s slow, and subdued and doesn’t scream bright colours or lights or characters. Like Sacramento did for Lady Bird, Squahamish plays an important character in the movie. There is a particular scene in a hidden hot spring that’s beautifully played out, and beautiful to look at. It’s not a movie that stands out much. It is a typical coming-of-age film about precocious teens. But unlike recent movies where diverse characters who are well fit into their respective schools and towns are shown, this shows how it is still difficult for outsiders, for people who look and talk differently from everyone else.