Gay teen rom-com shines with radically ordinary story of young love — and great leads
“Love, Simon” is something simple: Everyone remembers being young, how the whole world revolves around careening emotions and the need to be accepted and loved. And media (film in particular) for generations have been centered on tales of young love in that oh-so-addictive genre of teen romance. Everyone has their favorite: “16 Candles,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Easy A.” I’ve been partial to “Geography Club” for a couple of years now (more because I adored the books on which the film was based, but that misses the point).
However, “Love, Simon,” while full of all these themes you’ve probably seen a million times in a billion films, may just have become my new favorite, if for no other reason than that it perfectly captures that sense of a teenager’s first love with a tender, humorous and realistic touch not unlike John Hughes — except the protagonist of this groundbreaking major-studio production happens to be gay.
As 17-year-old Simon Spier (a charming Nick Robinson) would tell you, he’s a “totally normal” high school kid: His family is kind of awesome (he adores his kid sister and his parents — Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel — are about as accepting and laid-back as any kid could ask for), he has great friends he’s known for year, he’s getting ready to graduate and head off to college. Expect, he has “one huge-ass secret”: He’s gay, and no one knows. (In one of film’s numerous moments, Simon comes upon this realization after having a recurring dream in his youth about Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter character.)
But this wouldn’t be a teen rom-com without some way for Simon to fall in love. Enter Google. Well, Gmail. And a blog post written by “Blue,” an anonymous student from Simon’s high school who also happens to be gay. Simon, seeing a kindred, closeted spirit, writes back (also using a face name: Jacques). And so a written relationship turns into something more as the two shares what they can without outing themselves to one another.
In a clever use of unreliable information, Simon begins to assign the role of Blue to other guys in his school, fantasizing about each guy’s life as Blue details it via email. And the audience is left to guess if Simon is actually right (unless you’ve read the book on which the film is based, “Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli).
And, as all too often is the case, Simon keeps this secret from his closest friends, each of whom would fit into “The Breakfast Club” mode. We have the cool, good-looking transfer student, Abby (Alexandra Shipp); the nice-guy, straight jock, Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.); and the shy wall-flower, Leah (Katherine Langford), Simon’s best friend. And of course you have the basic stereotypes that these types of movies revel in: jocks; bullies; the super friendly and odd vice principal (Tony Hale, providing comic relief); the “I’m not putting up with your nonsense drama teacher (an outstanding Natasha Rothwell), a refreshing change from how much drama teachers are portrayed.
But, as we all know by now, secrets rarely stay secret, especially when you need dramatic tension. A failure to properly log off a school computer sends Simon’s world into a tailspin as the obnoxious and overbearing Martin (Logan Miller) stumbles upon Simon’s secret (and emails with Blue). Of course, the moral of the story is to always log out. But seeing how that’s hardly interesting, we get blackmail instead.
So Simon begins to weave a web of lies that ensnare his closest friends — particularly Abby; since Simon is so close to her, Martin uses his leverage to get Simon to help set up a date with her. All of this to keep his correspondence — and secret — away from the prying, judgmental eyes of social media and high school peers.
But, as if predicted by cinematic fate, everything begins to crumble, and Simon’s secret is reveal. In one of the film’s most powerful scene, Simon expresses a raw, devastating rage at being denying his moment, at having the opportunity to choose when he would come out stolen from him. It’s a fantastic piece of acting, made all the better because of the subtle sensitivity Robinson imparts into the moment. Hard, necessary conversations follow — with parents, with friends, with himself. It’s a bittersweet form of catharsis that beautifully, and sadly, realistic.
Maybe that’s because director Greg Berlanti, a television producer well-versed in the teen angst drama (“Riverdale,” “Dawson’s Creed”) who happens to be a married gay father, is able to bring an important perspective to the screen: If I didn’t know better, I would think that Berlanti sees a bit of his high-school self when he see Simon.
And it’s that connection that anchors “Love, Simon”: the believably of its characters. These aren’t caricatures; these are people you love, hate, respect. And yes, the lead happens to be gay, but that’s hardly the only word that describes him.
For instance: Did I mention the rockin’ soundtrack? Simon, for some reason that escapes me, has the most mature taste in music I’ve ever seen for a kid his age. A bit of contrivance, perhaps? It’s easy to wave off, though, because even I could observe the excellence in his choices (and, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m terrible when it comes to music).
In the end, “Love, Simon” reminds us of something simple: Everyone wants to be validated, to see their stories told, to have their own love stories, to know they’re not alone. It shouldn’t matter that the star of this phenomenal film happens to gay. But it does, at least for now. Representation is all the rage in Hollywood right now, thanks to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and films such as “Black Panther” — and now “Love, Simon.” It’s may be another teen rom-com, but it’s so much more than that, because any film that helps even one person find the courage to tell the world who he really is deserves to be celebrated.
Four “Now I need to read the book” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.