There are few surprises to be had in “Love, Simon.” If you’ve seen any teen rom-com from the last couple of decades, you’ll be able to spot each major plot point coming. “Love, Simon” makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel. It is familiar, charming, mainstream, and marketable.
“Simon” is also something more. For the first time possibly ever, all of the standard tropes and familiar set-ups of teen cinema are centered around a gay main character. It’s not an art film. It’s not Oscar-bait. It’s not a drama. It’s not about “self-discovery” or burgeoning sexuality. No one dies. It’s a simple teen love story that, yes, features a coming-out narrative both relatable and realistic.
Using voice-over, montage, and email correspondence “Love, Simon” tells the story of high school senior Simon Spier. It is clearly established that Simon is “just like you,” except, of course, he has a secret. He’s gay. Even though he is closeted, the movie directly acknowledges that Simon knows he’s gay, and he’s okay with it. This story is not about sexual awakenings; rather, it focuses on the complexity of the coming-out experience and the tumultuous nature of first love.
For many in today’s society, being gay isn’t necessarily that big of a deal. Simon acknowledges that, if he chose to, he could come out. His parents loving, accepting, and liberal-minded, and would love and support him if he came out. His friends are great, too. Yet Simon is not ready to do so. When another student uses a pseudonym to announce his presence via the school’s gossip blog, Simon realizes he’s not the only one okay with their sexuality who’s afraid to come out publicly. The two start a pen pal relationship via pseudonyms and, as you might expect, fall in love.
The beauty of “Love, Simon” lies in its simplicity, in the subtly revolutionary way we see a queer narrative handled so straightforwardly. It is not sensationalized, sexualized, or any more dramatized than the plight of teens in “She’s All That” or “10 Things I Hate About You.”
In fact, “Love, Simon” has more in common with those films than that other queer narrative film from this past year, “Call Me By Your Name.” Yes, both are about young, white, relatively-privileged cis males dealing with the ups and downs with their first loves — specifically of the homosexual variety. But “Call Me By Your Name” is a sensationalized homogeneous fantasy that, in a lot of ways, comes across as a straight imagining of the gay experience. (The original novel is written by a straight man and the film is cast with straight actors.)
“Love, Simon,” by comparison, is far more realistic. It’s awkward, clumsy, earnest, funny, and poignant. The cast is diverse and features actual, out gay actors like Joey Pollari, who plays the character Lyle in the film. It also specifically includes out gay actors of color: Keiynan Lonsdale, who plays Bram (known as star of “The Flash”), and Clark Moore, who plays Ethan.
Racism within the gay community is a real issue; it’s not unusual to see dating profiles that read, “Only interested in White guys,” or”White and Latino only.” Rarely in mainstream media do we get to see diverse queer characters that aren’t the sassy best friend, or otherwise stereotyped, victimized, or limited to being the punchline of jokes. In “Simon,” we see these characters as three-dimensional people with hearts, desires, and struggles we all recognize: being a high schooler; feeling misunderstood; being the outsider; wanting to be loved, etc. As with the best teen movies, universality is achieved through specificity, and “Love, Simon” ends up being a movie to which many will relate.
I saw this movie at a well-attended matinée showing. There were a couple of youngish, twenty-something gay guys, a much older gay couple, a middle aged gay man and his female friend, myself, as well as moviegoers of all stripes. During a film that is decidedly non-tragic, people were audibly sobbing. I know I cried multiple times. As the credits rolled, people applauded.
Yet the response to this movie from the audience was indicative of a poignant difference between “Simon” and films like “Call Me By Your Name.” By allowing this queer narrative to be simple, familiar, and relatable, and by inclusively and diversely cast with actors who have actually gone through the difficult and singular experience of coming out, “Love, Simon” has done something special. I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that if this movie existed when I was in high school, I would have come out after seeing it. But part of me is fairly confident that my experience as a young gay man would have been different. Honestly, “Simon” is probably going to change the lives of young people who see it.
In an interview with Ellen Degeneres, actor Nick Robinson shared a story that illustrates the impact of this movie. Robinson, who plays Simon, is one of seven children. During the filming of “Love, Simon,” one of his brothers actually did come out as gay. According to Robinson, due to his experience playing Simon, he found himself uniquely equipped to handle that conversation. This is a movie that will undoubtedly start a lot of conversations, and help a lot of young queer people on their journeys. Not all teen rom-coms can claim to be culturally ground-breaking, but maybe “Love, Simon” can be an exception.
Overall, director Greg Berlanti’s film is a sorely needed love letter to queer youth. The core message of the film is that young queer people can have the same sort of love story we’ve seen in straight narratives all our lives. Not only can we have those stories, but we deserve them. It’s a message that so many of us didn’t know we’ve been desperately needing to hear: “You deserve love.”