Starring: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp
Directed by: Greg Berlanti (“Life as We Know It”)
Written by: Elizabeth Berger (TV’s “This Is Us”) and Isaac Aptaker (TV’s “This Is Us”)
Unless you’ve been perusing the catalog of gay teen arthouse cinema and stumbled across recent gems like “Beach Rats” or “Princess Cyd,” it’s safe to say the genre isn’t one that Hollywood has been in a rush to make in recent years. Even with critically acclaimed LGBTQ films like “Call Me by Your Name” and “Moonlight” getting the attention they deserve, a major studio has only now stepped up to tell a more mainstream coming-of-age story led by a gay teenage character – someone who isn’t relegated to the role of “gay best friend.”
Imagine that Damien (“I want my pink shirt back!”) from 2004’s “Mean Girls” was given his own romantic comedy, or Patrick (Ezra Miller) from 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or that kid from “Easy A” who convinces Emma Stone to say they “lemon squeezed” so he could keep his sexual orientation under wraps. Where would we be with gay films if more of these characters were given the opportunity to do what their straight counterparts have been doing for decades — acting awkwardly around their crushes, flirting to their heart’s content and sharing with audiences what it’s like falling in love?
With “Love, Simon,” 20th Century Fox has released the most accessible movie ever about the gay teen experience. The outcome is so charming, authentic and emboldening, LGBTQ advocates should strike while the iron is hot and demand Marvel add a superhero movie headlined a gay main character to its franchise (unless, of course, you really think Deadpool’s sexual fluidity is going to be revealed in the upcoming sequel).
In “Love, Simon,” which is adapted from the 2015 young-adult novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli, actor Nick Robinson (“Jurassic World”) plays the title character, a closeted gay high school student who wants to tell someone about his “big-ass secret.” But he’s afraid of how his friends and family (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play his cool, progressive parents) will take the news.
When fellow student “Blue” comes out anonymously online, Simon reaches out to him (also anonymously) in hopes of finding someone he can confide in. After months of intimate emails, both young men realize they have fallen in love with one another, but question whether or not they should reveal their identities. But Martin (Logan Miller), an annoying theater classmate, takes that choice away when he discovers Simon’s private messages and threatens to out him if Simon doesn’t agree to help him land a date with new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). The move will also affect the lives of Simon’s best friends Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).
While things get a bit “Dawson’s Creek”-y at times, director Greg Berlanti never allows the narrative’s melodrama to overtake the more significant themes that make a film like “Love, Simon” a milestone for mainstream gay movies. Screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, both scribes on TV’s “This Is Us,” capture the confusion, self-consciousness and internal chaos taking place inside Simon’s own little world – with admiration for his character and for the situations he finds himself taking on alone.
They also use humor effectively and cathartically, which expands Simon’s personality in such a way that audiences can see he’s clever (but not too clever) and likable, and still somewhat flawed. In one scene, he questions why gays are the only people who find it necessary to come out, and imagines what it would be like if his heterosexual friends had to sit their parents down and tell them they were straight. It’s a subtle but funny sequence that fits in perfectly with the film’s other heartfelt moments and its message about acceptance and tolerance. This will speak volumes to real teens in the same complicated position.
Those same teenagers, however, should take note that “Love, Simon” — as easily accessible as it is — isn’t the only LGBTQ-friendly movie about teens that’s out there. You simply have to do a little research to find the indie versions of these stories on the fringes of cinema, just waiting for someone to give them a chance. Still, “Love, Simon” is a nicely wrapped gift that’s been placed on your lap, so take advantage.