What you make of Love, Simon, and undoubtedly what you take from it, could well depend on your identified sexuality. It shouldn’t, but it doesn’t quite feel we’re at the point yet where gender fluidity and honesty about our sexual preferences is not important. Greg Berlanti’s film, in fact, is all about the fact it still matters.
Love, Simon has been intentionally, specifically crafted to evoke movies and decades past. Adapted from the novel ‘Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli, Berlanti’s film wears its inspirations on its sleeve – principally John Hughes, maestro of the 1980’s teen angst comedy, who managed to fuse the colour and vibrancy of that decade with the love-lorn sense of existential trauma about what it means to be young and trying to figure out who you are in that world. The 80’s and 90’s seemed perfectly placed for those kinds of pictures, whether The Breakfast Club or St. Elmo’s Fire, even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (even if that’s built around more of a narrative gambit), through to films such as Empire Records or the early American Pie films. They may differ in style and tone but all share that same common element of DNA: teenagers figuring out where they fit in.
And while Love, Simon absolutely doesn’t veer from the texture and tone of many of these pictures—indeed it feels positively old-fashioned and comfortable to anyone who has watched cinema about American youth—it has one major difference: Simon, our romantic lead, is gay. Crucially, he’s not trying to figure out *if* he’s gay, or struggle with identifying as gay, but he is openly gay to himself and, quite honestly, proud of that honest realisation. Berlanti’s film is about breaking the news, about openly identifying as gay to other people, and that right now still remains the difficult dramatic and emotional area millions of LGBT young people in progressive nations where gender equality is permitted have to face on a daily basis. Simon isn’t anguished about who he is, he’s anguished about what he worries people will *think* he is.
Though not a revolutionary movie, nor one which is touching on subject matter unexplored previously in cinema, Love, Simon stands as one of the first mainstream youthful romantic comedies in which being gay isn’t a trauma, or a problem to overcome, or even something to be afraid of – it’s a story about people coming to understand, accept and learn. Twenty years ago, American Pie was tapping into the ‘romantic’, sex comedy bawdiness of Porky’s and such while still being the tale of an awkward heterosexual guy and his heterosexual friends finding young love; the biggest taboo there was Finch sleeping with Stifler’s Mom, fulfilling the ‘MILF’ wish fantasy (that film may well have popularised that acronym in the pop culture consciousness). The more halcyon youthful, cool teen films before it—such as Empire Records or The Breakfast Club—don’t even really touch on the fluidity of gender; they’re about the future more than the present.
That’s where Love, Simon differs. Berlanti’s film is very much concerned with the present, and how Simon deals with keeping the secret of his sexuality from the world, and how an email-based love affair with another closeted gay guy in the community sparks a journey of exposure which embroils all of his friends and family. Simon wants to be honest, wants to present as gay, but he doesn’t know how; he lives in the *most* middle-class American suburbia imaginable, and while he describes his Mom as hugely liberal, she was still as he describes “the hot valedictorian who married the high school quarterback”. His parents are the perfect example of everything Simon will never, conventionally in the eyes of society, be. Love, Simon successfully communicates the angst of someone hiding their sexuality from people who, in all honesty, would not adversely judge him.
Teenagers of the modern age are living in fractious, confusing times. They no longer have any direct sense of privacy; everything they do, or say, can potentially be judged given the broad scope of social media, their method of communication. Naysayers who suggest teenagers have “never had it so easy” or declare “just get rid of your phone” do not fundamentally understand how young people interact with the world around them today. A 17 year old ditching their phone filled with communication tools such as Instagram or Snapchat etc… would be the equivalent of telling a kid in the 1970’s they can’t use a phone at all to call their friends, or in previous decades that pen pals can’t write letters to each other anymore. This is how ‘Generation Z’, as they are so-called, interact with each other, and email proves to be the exemplar of that in Love, Simon.
Oddly enough, that adds to the inherently timeless nature of the whole thing. While, yes, on the one hand, Simon adopting an alias to communicate with Blue, the unseen ‘other’ gay kid in high school, over email roots the film in the 21st century, but equally most teenagers interact via WhatsApp or Snapchat or likely half a dozen communication tools most of the adult world don’t yet know exist. Email adds to that timeless charm, given email was the first major communication tool used on the burgeoning Internet, and almost certainly will outlast the myriad of social networking platforms that have dominated the public consciousness. Simon uses this technology as a diarist form of release while also making a connection he can’t make in the ‘real world’ – even though Blue is quite real, and Simon spends the whole film collecting ‘suspects’ for his mysterious online confidante.
That’s also a neat touch about Love, Simon. We don’t know who Blue is until the last possible moment and, honestly, Berlanti doesn’t overplay his hand on who Simon’s love interest might be (it comes as both a surprise and *not*, nicely to both us *and* Simon). The script provides a series of logical suspects who Simon then imagines reading the emails he receives in his mind, thereby consistently reinforcing his own narrative in imagining who Blue might be. It manages to make Blue less important, appropriately, than Simon’s journey to finding him; the film isn’t about the romance between Simon & Blue, that’s all to come in the future. It’s about Simon reaching that point of acceptance and catharsis with his friends and family so when he *does* meet Blue, he doesn’t have to hide and he can be proud of who he is.
Arguably, many gay people will likely consider Love, Simon powerfully simplistic. Simon (played with enormous self-effacing charm by Nick Robinson) is a genuinely lovely guy who has a privileged and charmed existence with a loving, likely quite wealthy family; his friends, such as cool and lightly sarcastic Leah, everyman Nick, and streetwise firebrand Abby (played by X-Men: Apocalypse & soon Dark Phoenix’s Alexandra Shipp) are equally nice, caring and loyal. Most people in his high school are equally fairly friendly; the extremely ‘out’ gay guy, Ethan, often succeeds in battling most homophobia with cutting jibes, and the two homophobic jock cliche characters are turned on and ridiculed for their small-mindedness at every possible moment – even by teachers, such as the scene-stealing Natasha Rothwell as a cynical drama teacher.
It *is* a fantasy, let’s be clear. This is not hard-hitting realism. The majority of people struggling to come out, or identify as LGBT in any way, often find the situation far more arduous, in far less liberal and forgiving surroundings, than Love, Simon. Callum Petch argues that Berlanti’s film promotes a white-hetero view of a gay romantic fantasy, one which is equally post-gender in its seemingly progressive blend of minorities in what would previously have been an all-white, all-straight environment. He also concedes the film has a level of charm, but his criticisms certainly have weight. As he points out during his piece, the fact Love, Simon even exists is important, and that filmmakers like Berlanti—in his directorial debut after rising to fame by producing the successful ‘Arrowverse’ of superhero shows on The CW—are able to make pictures about gay acceptance in the mainstream.
Perhaps it’s also part of the fantasy that a straight man, like me, might think Love, Simon was a heartwarming, loveable piece of 80’s inspired teen, young adult comedy which deserves to be appreciated on the lines of similar pictures in the 80’s and 90’s. Perhaps it existing makes me feel better, makes me feel less filled with straight guilt for all the years I didn’t even consider an LGBT agenda in teen comedies and feel-good films. Perhaps. Yet that almost seems disingenuous. Love, Simon works because it has characters you care about, jokes which are genuinely funny, and while a sentimental denouement, one which Simon thoroughly and utterly deserves.
It is, at the very least, a start. We can only hope it finds an audience and continues cinema’s slow and steady embrace of equality, particularly for LGBT.