Watching Love, Simon is really watching two movies: there is the high school comedy-drama you see in the theatre, and the momentous film with a gay lead you hear about and picture in your head on your way there. Anyone who has seen Black Panther will be well acquainted with this split. Love, Simon, however, plays its cards very differently, because while you are watching it, you forget all the noise, acclaim and criticism surrounding it, so you get to fully appreciate an endearing tale embellished with stunning cinematography and a breath-taking soundtrack.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Love, Simon is a coming-of-age story following seventeen-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson). His life is ordinary, except for “one huge ass secret”: he is a closeted homosexual. He has never told anyone, but his silence is threatened when he falls for a schoolmate going by the nickname “Blue”, who comes out anonymously on the school’s social platform. In trying to find out who Blue is without exposing himself, Simon is pushed into a funny, frightening, and ultimately life-changing journey to come to terms with his identity. The great love story he deserves, however, is further complicated by Martin (Logan Miller), the class clown who accidentally finds out about Simon’s online flirtation and blackmails him into setting him up with his beautiful friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp).
Simon is not a suffering recluse. He has a loving family and a close-knit group of friends. Director Greg Berlanti remarked, “This story should remind everybody, straight, gay, anyone, of who they were in high school and before they figured themselves out. What it is like to fall in love for the first time. What you do to protect that, what it is like to have great friendships, what it is like to have a family that gets a little bit too involved in your life sometimes.”
And it is certainly a success, because Love, Simon is not for gay eyes only. The by-the-books family and school dynamics offer the spectator a familiar setting that shifts part of the burden from Simon’s sexuality to his attempts to figure out who he is and announce it to the world. “The way that was approached in the book is the way we approached it in the film, which is to treat it like your first kiss or the challenges of asking out the girl that you care about,” states producer Marty Bowen. “Let’s essentially treat coming out of the closet as a normal, everyday, high school decision, which it is for many people.”
If the ambition of the film and the discussions around it appear of epic proportions – a mainstream movie with a single, gay protagonist?! – the film itself is not, and perhaps this is what allows it to be so entertaining. It does not take exceedingly radical departures from the genre (well, with one significant exception), although it is admittedly a particularly well-made teen comedy-drama whose reliance on familiar tropes does not make it any less momentous or fresh. To voices that rise in the darkness and angrily insinuate, “This film is acclaimed only because it has a gay lead,” the correct response is “No duh.” Art films have been featuring unrestrained queerness for decades; in more recent years, positive or neutral LGBTQ characters have gained currency in TV series and films, with some being even mainstream co-protagonists. But never before have we seen a movie created specifically for the mainstream market that is not afraid to have a rainbow teenager take centre stage alone. Writing that without alienating part of the desired audience, or conversely bowdlerizing the experience of a gay highschooler excessively, was bound to be quite difficult.
And it is certainly an achievement that Love, Simon manages not to remind spectators every second that they are watching something new and potentially innovative, but to make them laugh and cry and root for Simon. It brings one big, historical alien into the core of the mainstream. It normalizes what it celebrates. It is significant in its banality.
Costumes and soundtrack are integral components of the film. Simon’s inexhaustible supply of sweaters accentuates his “everyguy” dimension while at the same time serving as an eye-catching, even expressive character quirk. The music is overall in line with the conventions of the high school setting, but the specific songs selected by three-time Grammy winner Jack Antonoff and the admirable way they complement the editing promote it from a pretty accompaniment means to a meaningful artistic device that often adds a layer to the actors’ performances, which are strong across the board to begin with. With no more than a handful of forgettable moments in which his occasional low-energy acting may feel out of place, Nick Robinson manages to blend snarkiness, peaks of emotion, slapstick expressivity and a certain distance in his portrayal of Simon: to quote another character, he does look like he is “holding his breath” even as he goes through the motions with his family or goofs around with his friends, held back by his secret. Josh Duhamel and especially Jennifer Garner play the part of his doting parents convincingly, and Katherine Langford makes Leah, one of his best friends, stand out. Miles Heizer, her colleague in 13 Reasons Why, maintains an undefined quality that renders his character unexplainably intriguing, while Tony Hale is side-splitting as cringeworthy vice principal Mr Worth.
If one truly wanted to look for a nitpick in the film, it would be the prolonged absence of Blue at the end of the second act and in most of the third, which, though allowing Simon to progress, makes the ending slightly underwhelming precisely by virtue of the latter’s development. Not that it is an insurmountable problem, because the titular character, not the love story, is the focus of the film.
In the end, Love, Simon lives up to the expectations by managing to be both heartfelt and hilarious, both familiar and fresh, both potent and ordinary, with a great cast and a masterful crew behind the scenes. The day may come when we rue this movie for paving the way to dozens of inferior copycats (dread the gay flicks and queerxploitation!); but for the moment, let us enjoy this endlessly sweet, relentlessly amusing, successfully relatable exploration and affirmation of identity, which could have gone wrong in countless ways but didn't; let us rejoice that a film which was long overdue and so desperately needed proved to be such a blast. A whole generation (maybe more) can finally laugh and, in so doing, breathe a sigh of relief together with Simon.