Love, Simon arrives at a curious point in history, where it can be billed as a game changer even though it’s far from the first major studio film to directly focus on an LGBT character. Even as far back as the nineties, films like The Birdcage raked in hundreds of millions of dollars at the worldwide box office, despite a more widespread homophobia in society. What’s weird is that, in the past ten years, when gay acceptance has become the norm, major studios have paradoxically backed away from making gay characters the focus of any movie. This reached an odd peak last year when Bill Condon, director of the Beauty and the Beast remake, self-congratulated himself in an interview for including an “exclusively gay moment” so underwritten, audiences subsequently couldn’t detect it in the film.
In terms of style, Love, Simon is hardly rewriting the rules. This is a teen movie in the mould of the classic John Hughes efforts from the eighties, mixed with a plot largely derived from the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail (they really missed a trick by not calling the film “You’ve Got Male”). It’s inescapably conventional filmmaking, with a crowd pleasing narrative that’s as charming, heartwarming and predictable as you’d expect. And yet, I found myself getting won over by it regardless – there may be better LGBT films out there, but there are few that seem as perceptive to the needs of younger gay audiences, many of whom will still be in the closet when watching this but will feel a new found confidence to be themselves the moment the end credits roll.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a well liked high school student living with the everyday anxiety of being in the closet. One day, on a message board dedicated to school gossip, he finds out about another closeted kid at the school who has written confessional diary entries under the name “Blue”. Simon instantly sends an email to his address, using the alias “Jacques”, informing Blue of the secret they share. Unfortunately for Simon, his emails are quickly discovered by fellow theatre student Martin (Logan Miller), who blackmails Simon in to getting him time alone with one of his female friends, in exchange for silence about his sexuality. Not only does he have to deal with this stressful charade to keep his identity hidden, but he also has to find out the identity of the student he’s been emailing – who he is falling for faster with every email exchange.
You could argue that Love, Simon isn’t a particularly realistic drama; the vocal homophobia at the school is consigned to a widely maligned minority, and his story naturally has the uplifting happy ending that will likely inspire hundreds of younger audience members to find the courage to be themselves. It’s unlikely that anybody in the audience will have the same romantic life of Simon, especially at an early age – but nobody has ever had a day off quite like Ferris Bueller either, and he found himself quickly added to the all-time best teen movie list regardless. There’s a misconception that, because of the lack of LGBT representation in Hollywood, a film like Love, Simon needs to tackle larger issues. It doesn’t need to; it’s charming, moving escapism, that’s no more realistic than the average romantic film, or fantastical teen drama. It just happens to feel more believable due to the earnest performances of its core cast members.
Nick Robinson has previously taken lead roles in several other coming of age dramas – but is probably most known for his performance as the obnoxious kid in Jurassic World. This is unquestionably his best performance to date, offering the rare mainstream portrayal of a gay character that doesn’t fit into any stereotypical mould. He may not be as dynamic as the other people in his life, but he’s the perfect lead for such an “important” case of cinematic representation; he may be have many moments of adorable awkwardness, but overall he feels like a regular teenager, and could feasibly remind you of multiple people you went to school with. Which isn’t to say the ensemble have all been chosen for a similarly ordinary believability; the film breaks barriers with representation of different ethnic groups elsewhere in the film which, later on, proves to break further ground for teen movies – which, if it weren’t a spoiler, would probably be a talking point every bit as significant as the gay protagonist up front.
Credit also needs to go to the performances of Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner as Simon’s parents. The issue of Simon coming out to his parents felt oddly contemporary, as the film recognises that parents are unlikely to react negatively to their child coming out in this day and age – yet still understands that the uncertainty of life in the closet leads to irrational anxiety about telling them anyway. Simon’s father makes a gay joke early in the film, which is neither homophobic or mean spirited (his parents are caring, liberal types), yet because of Simon’s closeted nature, his reaction is one of quiet horror. When Simon eventually tells his dad, we get the film’s most moving sequence: his father teary eyed at the thought that any of his dumb jokes could have upset a son he loves more than anything.
Love, Simon isn’t flawless. The opening half hour struggles to find its footing as the screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger wrestles with the needs of a teen movie and the enormity of the subject matter, initially finding it difficult to balance the two. But then, it just clicks, and the result is a delightfully crowd pleasing teen movie that balances the personal journey of coming out, with the fantastical journey of finding true love. Nobody could mistake Love, Simon for realism – but its hopeful view of life outside the closet is exactly what teenage audiences need right now, and older audiences are certainly not going to be immune to its charms either. For many teenagers, this is likely to be the first film about a gay romance they ever see, and as an introduction to the wonders of LGBT cinema, you can’t really go wrong with this.