Love, Simon (2018)
He’s done keeping his story straight.
If you’ve ever ventured into the landscape of queer cinema, you’ll be familiar with its crushing themes of self-hatred, i.e. Head On (1998), suppression, look at Brokeback Mountain (2005), and death, 2015’s Holding the Man, these movies often finishing rather bleakly. Even a seemingly lighter affair such as Latter Days (2003), despite its more positive ending, couldn’t escape touching on such topics, which just goes to show how central many of these depressing themes have become when exploring the gay experience.
It’s been refreshing, then, to see two films emerge into the mainstream that, while radically dissimilar in approach and tone, seem to suggest a more positive outlook on homosexuality. I’m talking about the celebrated Call Me by Your Name (2017), in which a potentially controversial tryst is treated with the same sincerity as a classic romantic affair — the fact that the movie centers on two young men is mostly irrelevant. And then there’s Love, Simon (2018), an even more successful outing that uses a conventional high school backdrop to start a conversation around normalizing sexual preference and creating bridges into the understanding that, regardless of one’s gender, sexuality or background, we all feel desire and crave intimate connections.
Meet Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a regular high school student who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and seems to have his life in peaceful order. At home, he has a warm, loving, open-minded family; his mother, psychologist Emily (Jennifer Garner), genuinely seems to be available to discuss whatever’s on his mind, his occasionally hapless father Jack (Josh Duhamel) isn’t afraid to expose his more emotionally vulnerable side and his young sister Nora (Talitha Bateman) (who likes to cook) is kind and mature for her age. Socially, Simon’s got a tight group of friends in Leah (Katherine Langford), his oldest pal, Abbey (Alexandra Shipp), the newest member of the pack and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), his ‘brother from another mother.’ There is, however, one deep secret that Simon has held back despite the support of those around him, and that’s his homosexuality.
After receiving an anonymous online confession from a gay student at his school, who signs off with the pseudonym ‘Blue,’ Simon emails him back, igniting an online friendship that seems to evolve into something deeper, the ‘chats’ persuading him to consider coming out to the world at large. Alas, when the awkward drama club nerd, Martin Addison (Logan Miller), finds evidence of Simon’s interactions with Blue and blackmails him in a bid to hook-up with Abbey, Simon may be forced to fess up to the community much sooner than expected.
Basing their script on the 2015 novel Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, screenwriting duo Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, This is Us (2016 – 18), have crafted a comfortable, warm and familiar teen romance that harkens back to the earnestness of the beloved John Hughes era, namely the group dynamics of the cherished The Breakfast Club (1985). You see, the script recognizes the book’s two greatest hooks, which, in a way, reflect the unfortunate reality of people feeling the need to know about others’ sexualities. Firstly, there’s the mystery behind the alias of ‘Blue,’ followed by questions of when, how and why Simon may reveal his true self to those he cares about and perhaps even those he doesn’t. With that said, genuine dramatic depth is mined throughout the screenplay as the answers are slowly revealed, the film becoming disarmingly poignant, especially towards the climax.
Director Greg Berlanti, Life as We Know It (2010), ought to be commended for knowing he had a good thing in the story then realizing it with the attention to character and detail it deserved. Even those who consider themselves to be conservative or mildly homophobic can enjoy this one without having its subject matter shoved down their throats. And herein lies one of the film’s biggest assets, and that’s propagating the right conversations about its themes.
The intimate cinematography by John Guleserian, About Time (2013), combined with the firm rhythm established by telly editor Harry Jierjian, creates a smooth and unobtrusive atmosphere, letting the actors to do their thing in an unforced way and allowing the audience to really read the characters’ faces and expressions.
Speaking of which, the ensemble cast are all-round winners. Nick Robinson, Jurassic World (2015), owns the titular character and imbues him with a classic James Dean type vibe, while Aussie expat Katherine Langford, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why (2017), lends solid support and a whole other world of angst during a few painful realizations. The absolute highlight, for me though, was Natasha Rothwell, A Year and Change (2015), who plays a straight-talking drama teacher Ms. Albright, whose comedic takedowns never failed to hit the mark. Filmmaker Berlanti seems to have worked really hard in getting the ensemble to know one other and it shows — I never once doubted the well-established history and connections of the people on screen. As an example, there’s a cute moment between the central group who are happily dancing in their car, which was actually a real moment, captured in between takes.
While some may have their reservations about the ‘Hollywood-style ending,’ you know, where things work out hunky-dory and life moves on for the better, I’d argue that considering the film (despite its gay frontman), this finale is operating within the incredibly successful formula of the established teen romance, and in this regard, isn’t out of context. In fact, I’d argue that for this particular story, it’s more or less the only way it could go without cheating its audience and/ or finishing on a downer, which, as I’ve mentioned right at the start, is a tragically common occurrence within such stories.
Love, Simon has been touted as the first film produced by a Hollywood studio to feature a gay teenage protagonist and with the crazy success it’s already had, I’ve no doubt that within two years, we’ll be swamped with plenty more. But, will these features be handled with the same attention to care as this one has? Only time will tell, but here’s hoping.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie