In a wink to romantic comedies of the past, Freeform’s “The Thing About Harry” opens with a shot of the twinkling Chicago skyline, making it clear this is a film intended to tug on the heartstrings.
As rom-com fans can attest, the Windy City has been the setting for many cinematic courtships, including “While You Were Sleeping” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Even “When Harry Met Sally,” which many believe to be the genre’s gold standard, begins with a scene at the University of Chicago’s downtown campus before moving the action to New York.
There’s no doubt that “The Thing About Harry” revels in such nostalgia, and as in those earlier movies, a happy ending is guaranteed for two star-crossed lovers by the time the credits roll. The film is also refreshingly progressive, portraying two young queer men who choose to look beyond labels in their quest for love.
Debuting on Feb. 15, “The Thing About Harry” follows the openly gay Sam (played by “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jake Borelli), who is reunited with a former high school bully, Harry (newcomer Niko Terho), en route to a mutual friend’s engagement party.
On the surface, the two men are opposites. Sam is ambitious and career-driven, but he’s a novice when it comes to matters of the heart, while the cavalier Harry dates (and discards) with ease while shuffling between menial jobs. Still, Sam is surprised to learn that his former nemesis ― whom he has known to only date women ― has recently come out as pansexual, meaning that he is open to having relationships with people of any sexuality or gender.
A friendship soon develops between the two men, though it’ll take a number of years and a few unsatisfying relationships for them to discover they’re perfect for one another. (There may be a high-stakes, semi-musical profession of love, too.)
The film’s playful adherence to such tropes, as well as its visual nods to its predecessors, came after director and co-writer Peter Paige, a self-described rom-com “obsessive,” did years of personal research.
“I wanted it to feel so familiar and, at the same time, fresh ― like you just took it out of the laundry,” Paige, beloved by LGBTQ audiences for playing Emmett Honeycutt on Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” in the early 2000s, told HuffPost. “I’ve spent my life trying to put myself in Julia Roberts’ shoes, in Sandra Bullock’s shoes, in Katherine Heigl’s shoes, in Jennifer Lopez’s shoes. I wanted to make a movie for queer boys where they didn’t have to do that.”
Paige actively pursued Borelli, whose work he’d seen on “Grey’s Anatomy,” to play Sam. Borelli’s character on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dr. Levi Schmitt, came out as gay in a much-buzzed-about Season 15 episode after experiencing his first same-sex kiss. The actor himself followed suit on Instagram within minutes of the episode’s conclusion.
Fortunately, when Paige approached him with the role, Borelli was instantly sold.
“The fact that it was truly just a story about love with queer people ― versus a coming-of-age, traumatic coming out story ― is what excited me,” the actor told HuffPost. “Sam isn’t just queer. He has something to say politically and really wants to affect change.”
For the character Harry, Paige said he saw numerous actors read for the role to no avail until Terho, who had no prior TV or film credits, submitted an audition tape from New York. One chemistry read with Borelli in Los Angeles later, Terho was on board.
“I was very aware of not generalizing [the character],” Terho said, adding that he’s especially excited for foreign audiences to see the film. “I’m from Barbados, and the only information we get from the outside world, really, is from watching movies and TV. I want to show this to people back home and in places where they don’t see these things regularly and it hasn’t become normalized to an extent.”
As for the respective sexualities of his two central characters, Paige knew he was making an “edgy” choice with a gay pansexual pairing but believes the film is “more honest to this generation” as a result.
“Millennials and Gen Z-ers ... just don’t talk about sexuality the same black-and-white ways people in my generation did,” he said.
The film’s supporting cast includes Britt Baron of Netflix’s “GLOW” as Sam’s best friend, Stasia, and “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown as an uptight love interest. Paige himself appears briefly as Sam’s roommate, Casey. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, the pals share an intergenerational heart-to-heart that references Casey’s own coming out struggles.
“It’s a relationship I think people have in the queer world that maybe isn’t as common in the straight world, because we’ve been through the same things, we’ve fought the same battles, but in two different environments,” Borelli said. “It’s something Peter and I now have in real life, which has been really helpful.”
“The Thing About Harry” is being released at a time when Hollywood is making small but significant strides to diversify its romantic comedy output. In 2018, the big screen feature “Love, Simon” and Netflix’s “Alex Strangelove” both focused on young gay men.
“I’ve spent my life trying to put myself in Julia Roberts’ shoes, in Sandra Bullock’s shoes, in Katherine Heigl’s shoes and Jennifer Lopez’s shoes. I wanted to make a movie for queer boys where they didn’t have to do that. Peter Paige, director and co-writer of "The Thing About Harry"
Actors Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis will play girlfriends in “Happiest Season,” due out in November, while comedian Billy Eichner is attached to an currently untitled gay-themed rom-com, to be produced by Judd Apatow.
Despite this surge in LGBTQ-inclusive storytelling, “The Thing About Harry” could draw scrutiny given its release on Freeform, the Disney-owned cable outlet formerly known as ABC Family. Neither Paige nor Borelli is concerned about potential backlash.
“At this moment in time, when there is pushback over the progress that’s been made over the last couple of decades, it makes me all the more proud to be telling the story we are,” Paige said.
Borelli agreed, adding, “If this movie helps one kid in Ohio, I don’t care about the rest. It’s already helped me.”
Watch the trailer for “The Thing About Harry” below.