The third episode of Heartstopper's swoony second season features a moment of deeply romantic nostalgia, and improbably, given everything that happens in the rest of the season, it doesn't involve kissing. After Tao (William Gao) finally works up the nerve to ask Elle (Yasmin Finney) on a date, he chooses the most archetypal of date-night plans: a trip to the cinema.
This setup fits perfectly within Heartstopper's bubble of romantic fantasy, and also turns out to be the most culturally on-the-pulse moment of the entire season. With the twin releases of Barbie and Oppenheimer turning a trip to the movies into a social event in a way it hasn't been for a long time, Heartstopper is part of the zeitgeist in a way creator Alice Oseman likely never anticipated. Suddenly, one of TV's most Gen Z-centric shows is contributing to the culture's renewed zeal for a night at the movies.
This is, of course, incredibly ironic. Both streaming television and the so-called TikTok generation are two of the most oft-cited culprits for the death of the movie theater experience, and here's Netflix's own Heartstopper, a show at the nexus of streaming TV and phone-obsessed youth, acknowledging the primacy of the cinematic experience when it comes to the way we think about romance. There is something ineffable about the idea of a movie date: the darkened room, hands close enough to touch, the simple intimacy of sharing your popcorn with this person you're crushing on.
Of course, Tao and Elle's movie date does not go as Tao had planned. In his zeal to plan the perfect date, he sacrifices too much of himself: cutting his hair, dressing all slick, choosing Moonrise Kingdom — his least favorite Wes Anderson movie! — just because it's Elle's favorite. Heartstopper director Euros Lyn does a lot with these scenes inside the cinema, preserving the romance of the setup (the flickering lights on Tao and Elle's gorgeous faces; the French New Wave music from the film) while making things just a bit too awkward (those comically oversized movie snacks). Elle shrinks away from Tao's attempt to hold hands, and later the two have an argument about him changing so much of his personality just to court her. But a bad movie date is still a movie date, even if Tao would have been better off picking The Royal Tenenbaums.
Heartstopper's night at the movies is reminiscent of another scene from a 2023 TV show that acknowledged the cinema's place at the heart of our shared ideas of culture and community. In The Last of Us, when Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) make it to Jackson, Wyoming, and reunite with Joel's brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), they find him in a settlement. It's the first semblance of a functional post-pandemic society in the show, and gives Joel and Ellie (and the audience) reason to hope for the future.
To underline just how much the Jackson settlement has attained some sense of normalcy, they host a regular movie night, which Ellie attends. A working projector beaming The Goodbye Girl onto a screen for a bunch of kids is just off-kilter enough to serve as a reminder that things are not entirely back to normal. But it's also a reclamation of community: The adults of the Jackson settlement remember what it felt like to gather in the dark and watch a story unfold together, and they want to give that experience to their children, even if that experience is a 1970s Richard Dreyfuss romantic comedy.
Even before COVID, there had been the fear that the cinematic experience was no longer a core part of young people’s cultural experience. Kids are more interested in Instagram and TikTok, in being the stars of their own social-media stories. And while that fear may have always been a bit overblown, the pandemic and the AMPTP's intransigence in the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes pose a very real threat to the theatrical experience. Which is why the confluence of major trends like the Barbenheimer phenomenon and delicate little scenes like Heartstopper's movie date feel so important. Not even streaming TV can forget the exuberance, joy, and sense of nervous anticipation that the cinematic experience can provide.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.