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It’s easy to forget, given Moonlight’s groundbreaking Oscar haul and the steady stream of acclaimed LGBT indies released since, that queer characters in mainstream films are still barely visible. They make infrequent throwaway appearances in minor roles, providing emotional or comic support while their stories remain secondary, thinly sketched, irrelevant. Attempts to crowbar them into franchise films have been embarrassingly coy and so instead, their narratives have been forced to stay within smaller films, where the risk of offending or alienating an over-catered straight audience wouldn’t be viewed as such a problem.
This all makes the arrival of Love, Simon feel like a bit of a landmark moment. It’s a glossy wide-releasing comedy from Fox, an adaptation of a YA novel that boasts the team of producers who turned The Fault in Our Stars into a global smash along with a cast filled with of-the-moment teen stars, a Jack Antonoff-curated soundtrack of new music and, most importantly, a gay character in the lead. It’s, shockingly, still a big risk not just because of the protagonist’s sexuality but because teen movies are no longer in vogue (even last year’s critically adored The Edge of Seventeen couldn’t make it to $20m at the worldwide box office). One worries about the weight carried by one film, and how execs might use its potential failure to warn against “experimenting” again.
Simon (Nick Robinson) is a regular high school teen. His life is unremarkable, something he’s highly aware of, and the only thing about it that feels out of the ordinary is a secret: he’s gay. Pretending to be straight is a self-preservation tactic that might make him feel lonely but it also makes him feel safe. Simon’s routine is upended when he discovers, via an underground blog shared among his classmates, that someone else at the school is also gay. The pair begin an anonymous email flirtation and his life starts opening up to the possibility of not only romance but the idea of finally being himself.
Teen movies that revolve around gay central characters have traditionally been small in both budget and audience so it’s pleasing that from the outset, the director, Greg Berlanti (one of TV’s most powerful showrunners), is unashamedly courting a mainstream crowd. Love, Simon is as slickly packaged as its heterosexual peers, and as a result, there’s a tightrope being walked, the film hoping to attract a larger, straighter crowd while having to ensure the gay audience doesn’t feel as if the protagonist’s story is being sanitized. The script, from the This is Us writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, based on the novel by Becky Albertalli, manages this with impressive subtlety and, given the studio framework, an important lack of timidity.
Simon’s sexuality is not a barely hinted-at subplot but the key thrust of the film and there’s an almost educational significance for a wider audience in its well-orchestrated portrayal of the specific and intricate difficulties of being a gay teen. The daily deception, the constructed behaviors, the niggling fear of exposure – there are nifty, poignant insights into how terrifying an already terrifying time can be and, while it’s an experience we’ve seen on the big screen before (Moonlight’s middle section handled it heartbreakingly well), it’s never played out on such a grand stage before and at such a vital moment in time. The polished, sometimes overly soundtracked veneer still allows for a procession of acutely observed details, from the hypersensitivity around how others discuss sexuality to the unspoken jealousy aimed at those able to conduct themselves with more surface-level comfort.
That’s not to say that Love, Simon is just an earnest PSA, though. It’s a hugely charming crowd pleaser, an infectiously entertaining coming of age film that feels primed to attract and retain a loyal eager-to-rewatch audience. There’s a wealth of snappy dialogue and what feels like an attentive grasp of teenage life, meaning that the high school movie box-ticking that occurs (there’s a Halloween party and a big speech at a football game) doesn’t feel robotic. Robinson is an immensely likable lead and as he tries to figure out which local teen might be his secret crush, he does some fine, delicate work conveying an uneasy longing, unsure of how long to stare, terrified of what might happen if he’s wrong. The refreshingly diverse teenage cast around him are all strong (including 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford and The Flash’s Keiynan Lonsdale) while there’s a standout, scene-stealing turn from Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher.
When the film arrives at the third act, Simon’s coming out is spread out over a number of keenly observed scenes, authentically wrought and undeniably impactful. Berlanti avoids overly ratcheting up the drama and a scene between Robinson and Jennifer Garner, playing his mother, is wonderfully understated, its impact that much greater thanks to an avoidance of cloying theatrics. There is one rather regrettable misstep near the end as the script makes a misjudged #AllLivesMatter-style attempt to liken coming out to other high school reveals (“Everyone has to announce who they are”); grouped together with a few other step-too-far feelgood moments, it’s at risk of pushing the film into the realm of fantasy.
But Berlanti pulls us back from potential overkill as Simon’s romantic pursuit also reaches its climax and – without spoiling the identity of his e-pal – what could have been pat ends up thrilling. The audience in my press screening reacted giddily as if it were the end of a Marvel blockbuster: cheering, clapping and squealing at what felt like an unfettered breakthrough moment for mainstream representation of same-sex romance. Love, Simon won’t be short of critics (and many of them will be adamant that its story is either unimportant or, gasp, amoral) but within its sleek studio skeleton, there’s genuine heart.
- Love, Simon is released in the US on 16 March in the UK on 6 April
Source: The Guardian
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