The Film Collaborative

A House Is Not a Disco Review: Fire Island and Queer ‘Community’

Inside Out 2024

8 mins read

A House Is Not a Disco
(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Brian J. Smith


“No place on Earth probably has this much beefcake per capita,” an interviewee says in A House Is Not a Disco. Yes, there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of man candy in this eye-catching documentary debut from actor Brian J. Smith (Netflix’s Sense8). A House Is Not a Disco considers what would happen if all the gays were rounded up and stranded on an island. It’s no longer a moralistic premise. Rather, Fire Island Pines, the queer oasis situated 50 miles outside New York City, has been a thriving mecca for gay people for the last few decades.

The film explores how Fire Island harnesses the power of community. It embodies the “safe space” adage that people often bandy about. At the same time, Smith’s film acknowledges the elements of privilege that make Fire Island a very specific kind of gay haven with its rolling white beaches filled with well-toned bods. The doc offers a smart route for exploring the dynamics with which the queer community at large must confront.

Smith says in interviews that Fire Island is where he learned to be a gay man. This documentary therefore shares this sentiment with a loving eye. Smith and cinematographer Eric Schleicher capture the island’s beaches and boardwalks beautifully. Natural light and handheld camerawork lend a sense of warmth and immediacy. This environment is one of openness and positivity. The good vibes are infectious.

The fun in the sun follows an observational route as Smith checks in with various daddies and hunks on the island. Veteran Pine-dwellers share the history of the island and relate the story about how it became an escape for gay men when strident laws meant they couldn’t congregate, be open, or express love publicly.

A House Is Not a Disco offers space to men of all ages. Smith finds some fun tension as older gays remark that life on Fire Island’s a 24/7 party for younger generations. They note that younger folks don’t have to worry about AIDS and HIV like they did. The film has the inevitable chapter about the tragic years of the AIDS epidemic and tells how Fire Island was an epicentre. One interviewee attributes AIDS to freeing up a third of the island’s real estate—a comment that’s not meant as a joke, but a dire observation—while also noting that the epidemic was a defining moment when the community really came together. That spirit endures in the footage that Smith captures while out and about on the island.

In one of Fire Island’s many picturesque summer homes—calling them “cottages” seems inappropriate—Smith observes the life of a throuple that runs a “share house.” People come and people go. They cook food in copious portions, offering relief to hungry bellies that have gone empty—often, as one the homeowners notes, to make the most of one’s sex life on the island. There are swings, beds, and an open invitation for skinny-dipping. The house embodies the island’s emphasis on sex positivity.

At the same time, this openness brings its own complexity. One young man bookends the film and shares that life on the Pines isn’t always a party. When the film begins, he’s shaving his posterior in the shower and prepping for a summer of sex. “We’ll probably stop by an orgy,” he says casually. It’s as if picking up some guys on the island is the same as stopping by a fruit stand to grab bananas on the way home. He lets it all hang out at various house parties, but the film’s Wiseman-esque camera observes some discomfort and judgment from onlookers. Even the gayest partiers seem wary that some guy’s shaking his sausage awfully close to the BBQ.

The film admittedly meanders somewhat as it takes in the daily labours that make the island run. Loving eyes often take in too much. Check-ins at the liquor store highlight all the boys who keep booze flowing. A visit to the grocery story speaks to the island’s very specific clientele, as noted by the jars of za’atar flying off the shelves. Other looks at the idiosyncrasies relate how the island is accessible by ferry and doesn’t have any cars, points that add to the idyllic novelty, while one elder gay makes an annual display with lawn flamingos. He makes them up to resemble iconic paintings. Buff guys en route to the beach stroll by and take a gander at The Scream and Whistler’s Mother in flamingo form.

All these looks at life on the island eventually lead to deeper considerations. While Fire Island’s a slice of paradise, it’s also a haven enjoyed predominantly by affluent white cisgender gays. Two Black islanders speak of the need to create inclusive spaces. Meanwhile, one of the few transwomen on Fire Island shares how summers changed after she came out. Elder islanders also debate the absence of diversity. Humorously, they use the popular comedy Fire Island as reference to explore privilege on the island. For one, the question of having a pool represents the Pines’ accessibility. He feels that people disclose their “pool status” as a means of welcoming people to use it. For another islander, having a pool or not having a pool offers a form of social stratification.

Smith’s film finds a strong final act when it evolves into an unexpected environmental fable. As he follows the party planners who ready their annual beach fundraiser fête, Smith observes how Fire Island faces extinction. The waves roll higher and higher with the passing seasons. They erode the beach and even ruin the dance floor set the night before. Climate change takes its toll on the Pines, and the partiers recognize that their oasis could one day be submerged.

Using a strong mix of archival photos and videos to complement the contemporary vérité, though, A House Is Not a Disco offers a portrait of a place that, for however brief or long, created a gay community that opened its arms and let people discover their true selves. How long the party continues, however, relates to the many factors the community has to confront.

A House Is Not a Disco screens at Toronto’s Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival on June 1.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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