A Love Story That’s Short on Substance, but Big on Heart – Love, Simon

Representation in mainstream cinema has a long way to go, but there have certainly been significant strides in the right direction. Case in point: Greg Berlanti’s new film, Love, Simon. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come as a society (and how far we still have to go) that an otherwise standard teen rom-com could become such an overwhelming crowd pleaser given that the main character is a closeted homosexual. If you’re looking for a grand artistic statement about the struggle of being a gay youth, go watch Moonlight (not La La Land), as this movie doesn’t aspire to such heights. But even so, it’s relentlessly entertaining and full of heart.

Nick Robinson (most notably from Jurassic World until now) stars as Simon Spier, a high school senior in suburban Georgia (the final shot of the film hints that he lives just outside Atlanta). As he narrates, he has a pretty normal and good life. He loves his family (parented by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel), he has three really good friends, he gets good grades, and he’s counting down the days until graduation. The only thing that isn’t perfect is the fact that he doesn’t know how to come out and reveal that he’s gay.

On his school’s unofficial message board, a student identifying himself only as “Blue” vents a similar frustration, so Simon takes it upon himself to reach out to him, calling himself Jacques (as in “Jacques a dit,” the French equivalent of “Simon says”). As they correspond and Simon tries to figure out Blue’s clues (c’mon, you know I had to), he begins to fantasize about a number of the boys in his class, and eventually falls in love with the mystery man on the other side of local cyberspace.

The film is chock full of humor and drama, some of it marvelous, some of it beyond cringeworthy. For example, for the first half of the movie, I honestly didn’t think I’d like it because of the awkward jokes. The film was at its best when Simon drifted into some truly inspired fantasy sequences about his life as a gay man, including a musical number set to Whitney Houston that even Simon thinks is “too gay,” and a role-reversal where his friends would have to come out to their parents as straight.

Those moments served as a brilliant counterbalance to the main antagonistic subplot of the film. One of Simon’s drama club classmates (they’re performing Cabaret, a little too on the nose) has a crush on his friend, Abby (Alexandra Shipp from Straight Outta Compton and X-Men: Apocalypse). This classmate, Martin (Logan Miller of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) is basically the same type of loser I was in high school: drama geek, wears t-shirts with snarky jokes on them, completely socially inept, but he thinks he has a shot with the super-popular Abby, who is also the target of affection from Simon’s friend, Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. from Spider-Man: Homecoming). Anyway, one day Martin stumbles upon Simon’s emails and decides to blackmail him for help in getting Abby to go out with him. This leads to some truly excruciating moments at a Halloween party and the Homecoming football game. Martin’s obvious flaws and scheming threatened to derail the entire narrative, but thankfully focus was able to shift in time for it not to bring the whole movie down.

The other odd choice in humor rests with the school’s faculty. On the one hand you have Natasha Rothwell as Ms. Albright, the drama coach, who dishes out some sass and one-liners that really help to cut the tension. On the other hand, you have the normally hilarious Tony Hale as Vice Principal Worth, who means well but is unintentionally creepy with the way he tries to dole out discipline while still relating to the teens. He’ll confiscate their phones (good) and then tell Simon, “I really see myself in you,” which is just a very unfortunate line to say knowing Simon’s orientation. There are also some really misfired jokes that try to make the film more appealing to millennials, chiefly the blatant act of animal abuse from Simon’s family naming their dog Bieber.

When it comes to relationship drama, Simon is forced to play all sides. He has to help Martin get in good with Abby. He has to prevent Nick from asking Abby out in service of that. And finally, before we even get to learning about Blue, there’s Simon’s best friend, Leah (Katherine Langford from 13 Reasons Why), who is clearly in love with Simon (to us in the audience, anyway), but he’s both oblivious and not interested, so he pawns her off on Nick, leading to the first major fight the group of friends has ever had.

And the beautiful thing is, they’re not even mad about the gay thing. They don’t even care that he kept it secret (he does come out to Abby midway through). All they care about is the manipulation and the betrayal, and even that is forgiven when they see the consequences of Simon’s identity. Both Simon and Blue point out what’s obvious to us in the audience – that with such loving friends and family, they’ll face no real initial backlash from coming out, at least not from those who matter to them – and yet they can’t figure out why they haven’t come out yet. Again, this kind of positing leads to the outstanding fantasy sequences, so while it’s artistically just a cop out to pad the film’s run time and advance the plot, it’s still handled well from a thematic and entertainment angle.

That’s what makes this movie such a fun experience for the crowd. Acceptance of the LGBTQ community has never been higher, to the point where these people are properly seen as normal, if different from most others. When the moment of Simon’s outing happens, the pace of the film accelerates very rapidly to get to the happy ending we all know is coming. It’s predictable as all get out (except for Blue’s identity, though I did call it), but the characters are so well developed and fleshed out that we can truly invest in them and root for Simon to have his love story. I’ve seen a lot of odd and unique things at the movies over my 35 years, but this was the first time I ever heard an audience cheer for two boys kissing. Gives me hope for the next generation.

Yeah, this is a light movie, and it’s never going to win awards, but it’s genuinely heartwarming, and at times wildly funny. Part of Simon’s charm is that like every teen movie protagonist, he just wants his love story. Well, he got it, and everyone was on his side for it. Even I almost pumped my fist and screamed, “YES!” when Blue was revealed.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What celebrity triggered your sexual awakening? Should we kidnap the dog and give it a less offensive name, like Stalin? Let me know!

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