Here’s the thing about recent Young Adult romance adaptations: what’s good and what’s bad about them are ultimately one and the same thing. These are stories that live and die by how relatable and genuine they feel to their target audience, that nail the interactions between modern day teens, integrate social media into their stories without it coming off like your Great Aunt who has just discovered this new Facebook thing, and touch on topics and emotions in a way that teenagers understand without tipping over into ridiculous hysteria or condescending contempt. Its target audience needs to look at the film and feel understood and represented by the characters on-screen, if not always the events.
But these stories simultaneously also function as escapism. Everybody is super-pretty, of course, and live in big fancy houses in picture-perfect models of suburbia, of course, with parents that are goofy and uncool but always there emotionally when needed, of course. Almost everybody remains friends throughout the runtime, disagreements are easily patched up, the messier parts of the narrative are glossed over, and the soundtrack is, like, super-ultra-cool and of-the-moment. It’s teen-hood but with the rougher edges sanded away, idealised. And if you don’t believe me, just go back and watch both John Greene adaptations, The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, again. Greene especially is an author who professes to cut through the bullshit of idealised Hollywood visions of teenage life, but his works ultimately provide that exact same escapism – you and your lover may be dying of cancer, and that sucks, but a super-generous charity just paid a lot of money to whisk the both of you away to Austria for a romantic weekend! They have to walk a very, incredibly fine line, where a teenaged viewer can feel understood whilst at the same time being allowed to briefly, vicariously experience a better version of their own lives on that big screen.
I am not saying these things to cut down this subgenre, let me be clear. I not only understand the appeal, I will gladly confess to having a real soft spot for them when executed well. What are these films, after all, but a natural evolution of the mostly-deceased High School movie? No, I say these things in order to draw attention to the limited perspective that these films have. Because these stories are all about providing an idealised version of teenage life, with the more difficult elements minimised as much as possible – even when the story is meant to weepie, these are tales that consciously hold back the worst of it – they fundamentally end up as white hetero fantasies. The cast may be diverse in both racial and gender make-up, but race and gender never truly factor into the characterisations or story itself. It’s a harmonised, post-racial, post-gender, post-working-class safe zone, because the fantasies they peddle are Hollywood fantasies, which are white hetero fantasies.
Now, I bring this up because, even though the film just does not work and is arguably a little condescending for that aforementioned reason we shall explore further in a few paragraphs and spoiler warning’s time, Love, Simon – an adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – does mean something. By merely existing, it does mean something. In a genre that practically drowns in tales of all shapes and sizes about beautiful hetero people navigating high school, falling in love, and all that jazz, here is a film that is entirely about one young closeted gay man, the titular Simon (Nick Robinson), his difficulty with his sexuality, and the anonymous fellow closeted gay man at school he falls in love with online. Regardless of anything else to do with Love, Simon’s execution or quality, the fact that it exists, bankrolled and produced by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox), is something. Representation in a deliberately mainstream-courting film such as this matters, and that should not be discounted. Yes, it inarguably suffers in presentation compared to a lineage of explicitly queer cinema like Carol, Paris is Burning, Bound, etc., but, just like with all non-Male mainstream movies that come out of the big studio system, it doesn’t need to be openly radical and groundbreaking.
But, then again, Love, Simon’s strict adherence to the Young Adult romance template not only ends up making this quite possibly the most heterosexual queer romance story ever put to film, it also exposes the inherent limitations of the genre that it is a part of. For every halfway clever insight about the absurdity of having to declare yourself as different from the preconceived and narrowminded societal definition of “normal,” for every specifically 2000s teenager detail in its story – one of Simon’s first realisations of his homosexuality comes from Panic! At the Disco, specifically how he cared way more about Brendan Urie than the music itself – and for the underlying truth that, no matter how supportive and liberal your parents and friends may be, coming out is still a crushing, anxiety-inducing nightmare… Despite all of that, Love, Simon still feels like it’s made for largely the same white hetero audiences that all Young Adult romance movies are aimed at, and that all comes back to its nature as a fantasy at heart.
(One last interruption before we proceed into the meat of the criticism. I now have to throw up a SPOILER WARNING. To fully explain why Love, Simon ultimately falls flat, I have to touch on a few late-film story turns. These have mostly already been given away in the trailers, hence why I feel partially comfortable spoiling them, but the warning is here for those who may have missed them or just want to go in cold.)
Admittedly, there is a fine line to walk when making this point, because it runs the risk of believing that these kinds of gay stories need to have lots of angst and dysphoria to be dramatically compelling and worthwhile works of art, which is not only completely false but also insinuates many insidious beliefs about what kinds of gay stories are worth telling. But, well… Love, Simon is dramatically inert. Whilst Simon’s online interactions with the student going by the penname Blue, as well as his quest to figure out the identity of Blue, do make up a large percentage of the film, the conflict comes instead when the socially-inept, entitled, walking red flag Martin (Logan Miller) discovers Simon’s emails and subsequently blackmails him into trying to get a date with one of Simon’s best friends, Abby (Alexandra Shipp), which resultantly involves Simon manipulating every one of his friends to make sure Martin doesn’t spill his secret.
This should make Martin our out-and-out villain, since he’s taking Simon’s agency away from him completely, ransoming Simon’s ability to decide when he is allowed to come out against him, and it’s something that many closeted teens like Simon risk having happen to them on a daily basis in real life. But the screenplay, by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, either doesn’t seem fully aware of the gravity of Martin’s actions or, because the film is effectively a fantasy, simply doesn’t want to dive into them for risk of bringing the mood down. So, consequently, Martin oscillates between a genuinely nice guy at heart who is just too socially-inept to realise that his attempts to get with Abby and blackmailing Simon are alternately creepy and indefensible, and an incredibly pathetic caricature of hetero Nice Guys that we should laugh at as ineffectual – although it does lead to an amazingly, uncomfortably-hilarious public declaration of love sequence that feels like one of those snarky straight-people draggings from Queer Twitter brought to film. The film is never willing to truly stick the knife in him.
And that’s a problem, because he’s the one who outs Simon to the entire school when said prior sequence fails spectacularly, and even then Love, Simon gives him room to explain, express genuine regret, and have a moment of redemption at the ending. But the film’s refusal to fully wrestle with the weight behind Martin’s actions is befitting its excessively idealised best-case scenario coming-out tale. This is a High School, after all, with exactly 2 homophobes in its entire stable, whose every act of public homophobia is met with disgusted head shakes and disinterest by the entire rest of the school, including very public dressing downs by both teachers (Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher on her last fuck to give) and the Vice Principal (Tony Hale whose character and performance feels airlifted in from an entirely different and much worse movie). Simon’s family, liberal to their core – his mom (Jennifer Garner) is even shown making signs for anti-patriarchy marches – immediately support him without question once they find out, even his incredibly masculine father (Josh Duhamel). Whilst his friends largely don’t care about his homosexuality, because there’s that whole “weeks of relationship manipulation” thing instead to provide the End of Second Act Break-Up.
And I get the power in seeing a perfectly idealised support system, particularly for those still in the closet, I truly do. But the moment Simon goes back to school after being outed and almost nothing has changed, all of the drama bottoms out in spectacularly unspectacular fashion, because that kind of drama is incompatible with the YA romance template. It’s too complicated, too real, and the results of trying to force this alternate viewpoint into a template typical YA romance movie ends up feeling more than a little condescending and, given how the plot contorts itself to still have an End of Second Act Break-Up, arguably inadvertently victim-blame-y. After all, if Simon had just had the confidence to come out himself, then effectively nothing about his life would have changed, his family and friends would have supported him completely, and he wouldn’t have had to secretly manipulate his friends’ hearts and violate their trust, effectively avoiding the entire non-Blue part of the plot altogether.
It’s a very White hetero view of how coming out and homosexuality works. The idea that nothing substantial changes, that the vast majority of homophobia is openly blatant and looked down upon by all but the most Neanderthal of human beings, and that, whilst understanding that coming out of the closet can be an emotionally taxing experience that one should deal with in their own time and own pace, doing so will reveal that one was just getting worked up over nothing. Particularly if you can “pass” for what our society has deemed straightness to look like, as Simon does – there’s a brief moment post-outing where he actually Google searches “how do gay men dress?” Again, I get the power some can get from this fantasy, but it exists in a way so far removed from any kind of emotional truth as to feel, despite evident good intentions, rather insulting to me.
There are two things in Love, Simon that I feel best encapsulate its focus on appealing more to hetero audiences than anyone else. The first is the character of Ethan (Clark Moore). Ethan is the only out gay kid at Simon’s school, and has been for a while. He’s more conventionally gay in both mannerisms and fashion sense, leading to a brief scene of his coming out to his friends involving them affecting varying degrees of false shock at the revelation. He, effectively, has blazed a trail for Simon to be able to feel more comfortable with being out, although Simon doesn’t acknowledge this until he finally shares one dialogue-based scene with Ethan late in the film, but it also means he’s been bearing the brunt of the open homophobia at school for years. We, however, don’t spend anywhere near enough time with Ethan, with him instead being relegated to doling out sassy one-liners in response to said homophobia whilst never being properly troubled by it. (He’s also Black, but that is an aspect that is never explored because, again, doing so would not be conducive to the YA romance template that Love, Simon slavishly follows.)
The other comes from a fantasy sequence midway through the film. Simon’s musing on why he hasn’t come out yet to Blue through one of their emails and theorises that maybe he’ll just ride out High School as straight-passing before embracing his homosexuality at College. In said fantasy, his room is adorned with posters of hunks, he’s wearing ultra-tight clothes with a perfectly coiffed hairstyle, and joins in on a mass group dance and lip-sync along to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Once the sequence ends, Simon turns to the camera, stares dead straight down the barrel of it, and quips “Maybe not that gay.”
I want to make it clear, I do not think that Love, Simon is a bad film, and I am not saying that I didn’t laugh at a bunch of scenes, that I didn’t think the performances (particularly Robinson’s) weren’t strong and charming, and that I wasn’t still moved by the finale – for one can recognise the more problematic elements of grand romantic gestures put forward by stories like these whilst still being hooked by them completely. It’s fine, it’s kind of just fine. But it’s so concerned with trying to squirrel away a homosexual coming-of-age love story into a traditionally heterosexual framework that it ends up feeling so safe, so bland, and so normal as to feel inadvertently condescending and borderline-ignorant about the very sexuality it’s trying to celebrate.
Again, I get that there is a power in the existence of Love, Simon and its delivery. And maybe it might embolden closeted gay kids to come out on their own terms. And maybe watching it might convince swathes of hetero audiences to become more accepting to the struggles of queer teenagers by telling this story through the most palatable, non-threatening, and straight-feeling lens possible – heaven knows, in this political climate, this is apparently still necessary. But, well, is it wrong to feel that this should have aimed higher, regardless? “Everyone deserves a great love story” as the film’s tagline rightly states, but does that mean they need to conform to such a bland hetero vision of a “great love story?”
Love, Simon opens in the UK on 6th April.