As the first of its kind – a gay coming out teen rom-com made and released nationwide by a major Hollywood studio – there is a lot of pressure on Love, Simon to not only be great but also be everything to everyone in the LGBT community.
Good news: It’s exactly as charming, funny, and heartwarming as it needs to be.
Bad news: It’s not everything for everyone. It doesn’t do as much as it could with orientation, race, class, or a full acknowledgment of bigotry. For example, in a time ripe with talk of sexual fluidity, Love, Simon still takes the binary, gay or straight approach with no references to any other orientation. An effeminate black classmate of Simon’s who identifies as gay and has been out for years isn’t given nearly enough screen time nor is he afforded the chance to disrupt Simon’s assumptions about how easy he makes it look. Apart from one friend shown to be living in an apartment, everyone seems to enjoy lives of unacknowledged privilege. Simon appears to be going to one of the most liberal high schools imaginable, where the drama department is somehow allowed to perform Cabaret and when the bullying comes, usually, just from the same two jocks, a sassy teacher (a scene-stealing Natasha Rothwell) is nearby to triumphantly put them in line.
Beyond all of that, Simon (Nick Robinson) is a somewhat bland character, the type of teen movie protagonist with lazy signifiers like an Elliott Smith poster on his wall and Radiohead adulations scribbled on the blackboard surrounding his bed.
Yet, despite all of that I adored Love, Simon. Even the parts clearly spun from director-writer Greg Berlanti’s Pottery Barn catalog view of the world, such as casting Josh Duhamel as the Everydad or giving Jennifer Garner, playing a mom yet again, a Call Me By Your Name-like speech, oddly added to the enjoyment factor, if maybe in a slightly snarky way.
The story, adapted from Becky Albertalli YA Novel, is chiefly about the ongoing emails exchanged between Simon and another kid in his high school. They are both gay, but in the closet, and they are both emailing under assumed identities (Simon is “Jacques,” the mystery person is “Blue”). Over time, they fall in love and give each other the courage to accept who they are and share it with the world. The mystery of “Blue”’s identity looms over everything, leading Simon down several rabbit holes and chasing several misdirections. It’s all, of course, leading to a grand discovery and romantic gesture
Except since this is a teen movie, in the mold of John Hughes meets You’ve Got Mail meets The Perks of Being a Wallflower, someone blackmails Simon. If he doesn’t help this person seduce one of his best friends, played by X-Men: Apocalypse’s Alexandra Shipp, then those emails go public. Much teen movie drama ensues.
What I love about the film is its heart. Through his many, many TV shows (like The Flash), Berlanti has shown a real knack for romance and getting the emotional core of the story right, if not always the details. As a gay man himself, he clearly comes to Love, Simon with plenty of passion and first-hand knowledge, which gives the film an emotional authenticity which is too lovely to resist and allows a scene like Simon surprising even himself by announcing “I’m gay” in a quiet moment with a friend to hit like a punch to the heart. And as films in this genre are meant to be heightened, with little thought to whether the central couple will actually last in the long-term, I was completely swayed by the romanticism on display.
Plus, although Simon is unavoidably the center of the story his friends – played by Shipp, 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford, and Jorge Lendenborg, Jr. – feel more fleshed out than usual for a teen movie. For example, we go with Simon on quite the emotional journey, but there’s enough time to also feel for his best friend, Langford’s Leah, who is so 100% obviously in love with him and oblivious to the fact that he’s gay.
Certain moments might make you snicker unintentionally, such as Simon starting the film with “I’m just like you” before going on to describe just how truly unlike he is from anyone without financially successful parents. And Simon, like any other teenager still figuring things out, isn’t always the most sympathetic, from dismissing potential candidates for Blue’s identity for not being handsome enough to rejecting a fantasy version of college where everyone dances to Whitney Houston as being too gay, even for him.
That, however, also helps to make him feel more like an actual teenager, and the journey he goes on should have been told on film long ago. In fact, it already has been, in countless indie movies over the past couple of decades. But nothing this mainstream has ever been made before, and the exposure it has attained has already inspired countless gay kids to come out of the closet. Robinson’s own brother came out to him when he was making the movie, prompting him to tell People, “I think that’s the strength of a film like this is it starts a conversation. I hope that it can do that for more people and start a conversation that otherwise may not have been there.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
They don’t make John Hughes high school movies anymore, not unless you can add a superhero or something scary in it. But they’ve never made anything quite like Love, Simon anymore. The two go together beautifully, resulting in a charmingly heartwarming film that puts you in a gay kid’s shoes and lives up to its own tagline: “Everyone deserves a great love story.”
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
Hollywood’s always-reliable knack for kitchen porn strikes again.
Multiple, wide windows with a lovely view of a bucolic backyard, a gas stove with six burners, brick-imitation backsplash, clear glass cupboards, a marble-topped island and counters…
And a breakfast nook with padded chairs, pillows, fresh fruit, perfectly centered wall-art and awesome light fixtures! Oh, Greg Berlanti, Nancy Myers would be so proud.
No, seriously, I want that kitchen.