If there’s one thing that Love, Simon succeeds at, its giving us something new in a genre that is characterized by the regurgitation of the same tropes and clichés. Needless to say, I am not a big fan of teen romcoms, so I walked into my advanced screening last Tuesday with cautious optimism. I was immediately surprised to see how packed the theater was with plenty of young faces and couples, and as soon as the movie started they cheered and filled the theater with so much delight and energy that can only be beaten by a crowd of a Star Wars movie on opening night. It was in that moment I knew that I was about to watch something very special for my community. Love, Simon is a heartfelt, positive, and inviting romp through the personal journey of a closeted gay teenager, and being that it is a mainstream studio film- that in itself is an honorable achievement.
Adapted by the 2015 young adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Love, Simon tells the story of a teenage boy dealing with the struggle of embracing his own sexual identity whilst also wanting to also fit in and be treated normally by his family, friends, and peers around him. It was directed by Greg Berlanti, the writer-producer of other teen-aimed movies and shows such as the D.C. network shows and was produced by the same people who brought you films like The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. This is a good indicator of what kind of film to expect going in, but Love, Simon does offer some very substantial subversions of traditional romantic comedy fare, including a character that serves as a callout to the obnoxious white knight archetype you see in a lot of these films.
The story is set into motion when a fellow student comes out as gay anonymously through a blog post on the school’s rumor website under the alias of Blue, and Simon reaches out to him for some friendly help under “Jacque” (the use of e-mails over of direct messaging and blogs instead of social media accounts definitely struck me as a few of the most out of touch elements of this film) Their relationship becomes a lot more intimate as they begin to bond by sharing their celebrity gay awakenings, the casually homophobic comments they hear from others, and in time they begin to develop feelings for one another. What I especially found more interesting about the plot of the film is that it is focused on the romance rather than exploring Simon’s experience in the closet.
Simon himself is a humbler portrayal of the average gay teenager that isn’t restrained with the tiresome Hollywood stereotypical characteristics that a gay character in the media would often have. He simply is the average teenage boy with a loving, liberal family and supportive friends, and his gayness is merely an asset of himself that he conceals out of personal fears. Obviously I find it refreshing to see a character in a studio film that is gay and isn’t overly sexualized, stereotypically feminine, or just a side to be in support of a leading character, but the most interesting thing that Love, Simon does with the character is explore his internal fantasies and desires. His new budding relationship with Blue not only opens up the mystery of Blue’s identity throughout the film, but it more importantly leads Simon to dream of a reality in which he doesn’t need to hide himself.
Simon’s struggle with being in the closet was well portrayed in the film, as it doesn’t matter how accepting your parents and friends are- your time in the closet is a repressed, personal journey that is emotionally challenging despite whatever position you are in society. Some obviously have it harder than others, but I feel as though the filmmakers were as respectful and true as they could be to that experience in a PG-13 studio film. There were plenty of moments that definitely echoed some of my own.
My senior year of high school was also the year where I came out of the closet. I felt really familiar with Simon’s friend group, the time they spent together, and the bonds they shared. Of course it isn’t highly detailed and specific levels of familiarity but it is convincing enough in its high school antics to absorb yourself and your friends into these characters, which made the moments they spend with Simon all the more authentic. The best example of this is how well Berlanti understands and faithfully recreates the experience of coming out to your friends in a parked car to a tee. (Though I will detest the notion that this friend group would be listening to Drake together and not 80s Pop, but that is a minor nitpick. Beyoncé, I will accept.) Particularly, the performances from Alexandra Shipp and Keiynan Lonsdale were especially compelling to me, they were oozing with charm and wit every moment they had on screen. I hope to see them in other films where they can shine on their own in the future.
Then the third act came around, where the relatablity factor takes a backseat in favor of furthering the teenage fantasies of the film- but that’s okay! This is meant to be an escape and not an critical look into reality after all. What I picked up on the most watching two tender parenting moments between Simon and his parents played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel was that this film was offering me comfort in moments that I never got to have growing up. Experiencing these moments vicariously through the eyes of Simon, despite how Hollywoodized and over dramatic they got, was a unique experience in itself. I’ve seen moments similar to these in other movies and tv shows, but never with this amount of normality. Simon is not the token here, he is the main character and this is his story and we get to follow him through all of it. That in itself is what Love, Simon brings to the table that a lot of media doesn’t. This may be cheese, but it’s finely crafted cheese with a distinct, sharp flavor.
Love, Simon is certainly not infallible. A lot of its moments suffer from sitcom-like melodrama that made me long for a version of this story told through a more grounded coming-of-age drama approach like Lady Bird achieved. And of course this is not the definitive gay film to relate to and portray the community as a whole, but it doesn’t need to be, nor should it be expected to reach that level. This is a film for gay teens that are going through the universal experience that Simon is going through. It’s broad but effective. Through that accessibility, the film makes a true effort to normalize gay media into the mainstream in a tasteful way that exceeded my expectations. If you’re like me, Love, Simon will charm and resonate but it will not change your life, but it does have the potential to make another person’s life easier by making them feel a bit less lonely- and for that it deserves praise.