It is exasperating that it has taken a film like Love, Simon so long to come along.
Love, Simon is the teen love story that gay audiences have been owed for the past 30 years. Too many young gay viewers had to grow up unable to completely relate to the romantic inclinations of characters played by Molly Ringwald, Matthew Broderick, Julia Stiles and Lindsay Lohan. If a gay male character managed to find his way into a mainstream teen romance, he was almost certainly there as comic relief or on rare occasions as a tragic or villainous supporting character. Director Greg Berlanti (best known as the writer and producer of many of the CW’s superhero series) puts a gay character and his love life in the center of a smart, funny and warm teen comedy, and the result is a film that feels fresh despite being an ardent and obvious homage to the work of the late, great John Hughes.
Simon, played by Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson in a sensitive, magnetic central performance, is a happy, well-adjusted Atlanta teen with a supportive, open-minded family and a diverse, tight-knit group of friends. However, he has a secret: he’s a closeted homosexual. Simon has the privilege of not having to worry too much about coming out, as he knows his family and friends will probably accept him, but he is reluctant to come out with so little time left in high school because he’d rather graduate as the Simon he’s always been. That is, until he discovers Blue, an anonymous, closeted gay student, through a post on a popular school gossip blog. Simon reaches out to Blue under the pen name Jacques and the two start a romantic email correspondence.
However, Simon accidentally leaves his email open on a library computer, where it is promptly discovered by theater geek Martin (Logan Miller), who blackmails Simon into setting him up with Simon’s gorgeous friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Worried that his outing by Martin would scare away Blue, Simon agrees and begins to manipulate his friends in order to serve Martin’s needs.
The scenario feels icky, as it should, and the film is smart to limit any potential for audience sympathy for Martin. Though Simon professes that coming out wouldn’t be that bad for him personally, the film wisely shows that even though Simon faces little physical danger in coming out there is still emotional and psychological torment to be had. A clever dream sequence shows Simon’s friends all coming out as straight to the families. Their families react with the shock, regret and disdain that too many real parents direct at their gay children, and the result is both funny and painful. And though Simon’s school is shown to be progressive, the school’s only openly gay student, Ethan (Clarke Moore), is constantly bullied.
Drama is well-balanced between Simon’s quest to discover Blue’s true identity and the anticipated revelation of Simon’s secret. This sturdy romantic and dramatic framework moves along while an abundance of clever high school humor plays out. The screenplay, deftly adapted by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker from Becky Abertalli’s 2015 novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, is timely without being overly cynical. There is a sweetness to the scenes between Simon, his parents (played winningly by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and his sister (Talitha Bateman) as well as his interactions with his best friends Abby, Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Leah (Katherine Langford). The cast believably plays loving friends and family. If the characters were to be so effortlessly lovely to one another in a comedy about straight teenagers, these sweet, loving relationships and interactions could come across as boring or clichéd. But to have a closeted gay character with this strong support structure built around him is cinematically important and also allows for generic teen humor to be twisted into something sly and occasionally hilarious.
Garner and Duhamel each deliver effective emotional and comedic moments, and standouts Natasha Rothwell (best known for TV’s “Insecure”) and Tony Hale (of “Veep” and “Arrested Development”) provide laugh-out-loud comic relief. But the film belongs to its young actors, with the central foursome of Robinson, Shipp, Lendeborg and Langford coming together for a lovely, complicated millennial version of The Breakfast Club.
Love, Simon is a step forward in terms of mainstream cinematic representation, but it doesn’t get everything right. Outside of Simon, it’s primarily occupied by straight characters, and there’s hardly any mention of the rest of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, particularly irritating as in the real world, gay white males too often forget the rest of their own community. Finally, Simon has been desexualized from Abertalli’s novel, which was already a very PG character. LGBTQ+ characters are so often sexualized in negative ways in mainstream entertainment, yet when it comes to depicting healthy sexuality there are still far too few examples. Simon, as a sexually curious 18-year-old, should be interested in more than just kissing a boy.
It’s an immense pleasure to see a film perfectly embody its aspirations. Everything from a well-chosen soundtrack to cathartic moments of drama and romance fall perfectly in line with such films as Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the inclusion of a gay protagonist (with multiple love interests!) and a multicultural cast makes the film current. On the one hand, it is exasperating that it has taken a film like Love, Simon so long to come along. But that doesn’t mean its belated arrival shouldn’t be celebrated.