With critical darling Call Me by Your Name, foreign standouts BPM (Beats Per Minute) and A Fantastic Woman and underseen indie beauties like God’s Own Country and Princess Cyd, 2017 was a hearteningly good year for queer cinema. Of course, those are all art house items — which, in the multiplex-littered landscape of American movies, means limited box-office potential.
Enter a different beast entirely: Love, Simon, a sweet, slick, broadly appealing YA adaptation (Becky Albertalli’s 2015 novel was called Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) touted as the first major-studio-backed romantic comedy with a gay teen protagonist.
A sweetly winning mainstream teen-com, with a difference.
The movie was directed by Greg Berlanti (the prolific writer-producer behind Dawson’s Creek, Brothers & Sisters, The Flash and more), penned by a pair of This Is Us scribes and produced by the people who brought you The Fault in Our Stars. In other words, it’s an expertly carved chunk of cheese. But taken on its own, limited terms, Love, Simon is also a charmer — warm, often funny and gently touching, tickling rather than pummeling your tear ducts.
Historically, the LGBT films that have raked in the most money are the ones that boasted attention-grabbing hooks (“gay cowboy movie” Brokeback Mountain) or conformed to certain gay narratives the public was comfortable with (dying of AIDS in Philadelphia; South Beach flamboyance in The Birdcage). How Love, Simon fares commercially will, in part, be a test of whether Americans outside urban “bubbles” are interested in stories of ordinary gay folks looking for love.
If any LGBT-themed pic has a shot at conquering red-state hearts — a long shot — it may be this one; aside from a relatively chaste same-sex kiss and a reference to “butt sex,” it’s a very wholesome PG-13. And while there inevitably will be grumbles from those who would have preferred a grittier portrayal of the gay adolescent experience, Love, Simon’s vanilla-ness is also what makes it culturally significant, and even slightly subversive. The film looks and sounds like so many other mainstream, John Hughes-nostalgic high-school-coms you’ve seen on both big and small screens, just with one difference: The hero is gay. It’s as if Berlanti is daring audiences to find anything objectionable in what amounts to a thoroughly family-friendly queer film.
Love, Simon should also attract LGBT teens starved for onscreen representation, while older gay viewers will likely wish there had been a coming-out movie this buoyant back in their day.
“I’m just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret,” 16-year-old Simon (a winning Nick Robinson) tells us via voiceover in the opening minutes, as he eyes a studly groundskeeper wielding a leaf-blower (paging Dr. Freud!). Simon lives with his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and younger sister (Talitha Bateman) in an affluent Atlanta suburb. Mom is a therapist and bleeding-heart liberal, while Dad is a jovial guy’s guy — sensitive enough, but not above the occasional casually homophobic comment. At one point, he refers to another man as “fruity,” and you can see Simon straining not to flinch; the film nails the fleeting terror of moments like these, when loved ones disappoint.
At school, Simon rolls with a close-knit crew: childhood bestie Leah (13 Reasons Why’s excellent Katherine Langford), soccer player Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and artsy new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Their repartee is the weakest element of the screenplay, marred by the sort of glib, self-conscious cutesiness typical of dialogue written for kids by adults.
The movie doesn’t probe why a teen with as solid a support system as Simon’s would have such a hard time coming out today; it accepts the character’s concealment of his homosexuality as a simple fact of his existence, as if to suggest that the closet will be full no matter how much society evolves. Meanwhile, Berlanti draws you in with brisk pacing and breezy humor, populating Simon’s world with amusing supporting characters such as a perky vice-principal (Veep’s Tony Hale), an exasperated drama teacher (Insecure scene-stealer Natasha Rothwell) and out-and-proud classmate Ethan (Clark Moore). If the movie’s schematic portrayal of the school’s social ecosystem — jocks, theater geeks, cheerleaders, etc. — feels dated, there are sly modern touches, like the way Ethan snaps back at the bullies who target him, tearing into them with withering wit and regal pride.
Love, Simon’s plot thickens with the appearance of an anonymous blog post in which a fellow student reveals, under the pseudonym of “Blue,” that he’s gay. Stirred by a sense of solidarity and hungry for connection, Simon creates a new email address, picks his own alias and replies. Thus begins a kind of epistolary friendship — and then, perhaps, more — between the two young men, who share their yearnings and frustrations in feverish confessional notes. The movie conveys the relief, and release, of this online relationship, as well as the obsessiveness: In one brilliant shot, Simon is seen firing off a message to Blue with one hand as he sits in class, his fingers flying along his phone keyboard under the desk while his eyes remain locked on the teacher in front of him.
Simon soon sets about trying to figure out whom he’s been communicating with. Berlanti deftly milks the mystery, pulling us into Simon’s suddenly charged interactions with every “suspect,” and showing each of those characters, one after the other, as the Blue of Simon’s fantasies. Is it popular kid Bram (the dazzlingly charismatic Keiynan Lonsdale)? Friendly Waffle House waiter Lyle (Joey Pollari)? Pensive pianist Cal (Miles Heizer)?
The possibility of romance opens up Simon’s world, allowing him to ponder a future in which he has nothing to hide. In one exuberant sequence, he imagines college as a musical number choreographed to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” an ensemble clad in colored tees busting out moves as Simon tries to pick up the rhythm.
But when obnoxious classmate Martin (Logan Miller) discovers Simon’s secret, he blackmails Simon into helping him woo Abby. Things get complicated since Nick also has a crush on Abby, Leah may be nursing feelings for Simon, and Simon still doesn’t know the identity of the boy he’s in the process of falling in love with. It’s not spoiling much to say that the protagonist’s coming-out doesn’t go as planned.
The film veers toward the tiresomely formulaic when navigating the tangle of drama between Simon and his friends that dominates the third act. It’s in this stretch that Berlanti’s TV roots show most conspicuously: The storytelling beats grow more dully conventional; the movie’s flow stiffens into an accumulation of “moments” (Garner’s heroic-parenting scene has the misfortune of arriving so soon after Michael Stuhlbarg’s incomparable one in Call Me by Your Name); and Rob Simonsen’s otherwise fine score turns syrupy. Happily, the director pulls things together for a romantic climax that’s at once swoony and refreshingly restrained.
Robinson (Jurassic World; Everything, Everything) underplays nicely — and fittingly, for a character experiencing seismic emotional shifts but determined not to be noticed. Below-the-line contributions are polished, and pop music is used shrewdly throughout (The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” is deployed to particularly lovely effect).
You may wish, as I did, that Berlanti had cracked the sitcom-ish surface from time to time, allowing a bit of darkness into a story that’s as much about the claustrophobia of the closet as the satisfaction of self-acceptance. But whereas his feature debut, the West Hollywood-set The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy (2000), felt a bit facile in its light-hearted take on contemporary gay life, the steadfast sunniness of Berlanti’s new film registers as deeply purposeful. Sometimes pushing things forward requires tact, simplicity and optimism. Love, Simon understands that, and so much the better.
Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, New Leaf Literary & Media, Temple Hill Entertainment, Twisted Media
Cast: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Joey Pollari, Tony Hale
Director: Greg Berlanti
Writers: Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, based on Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Producers: Isaac Klausner, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Pouya Shahbazian
Executive producer: Timothy M. Bourne
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: Eric Daman
Editor: Harry Jierian
Music: Rob Simonsen
Casting: Denise Chamian
Rated PG-13, 109 minutes