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Review: Love, Simon

March 17, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a pretty typical high schooler.  He gets solid grades and has a good home life with his parents Emily (Jennifer Garner) and Jack (Josh Duhamel), who were high school sweethearts, and his little sister Nora (Talitha Bateman) is a budding chef who does most of the cooking.

Simon spends his time hanging out with his trio of best friends Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), who all carpool to school together.  But Simon also has one “huge-ass secret,” as he tells us in voiceover.  He’s gay, and nobody knows it yet.

Thus begins Love, Simon, a totally winning teen film based on Becky Albertalli’s popular YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which has been brought to the screen by director Greg Berlanti.  The result is a well written and very well acted movie that is filled with so many funny and touching moments, that it won my heart over early and often.  It pays tribute to countless other coming of age films before it, but puts a fresh twist on them with a quietly groundbreaking for a studio film gay love story at its centre, and it already feels like a potential new classic in the teen movie genre.

The story gets more complicated when a blog post shows up on a popular school gossip site talking about a closeted gay kid at school who goes by the codename “Blue.”  Simon reaches out to him through email, and the two of them start a correspondence.  They end up developing feelings for each other through their pen pal relationship, but neither of them is ready to come out, so they choose to keep their real identities a secret.  The only other “out” student at school is Ethan (Clark Moore), a flamboyantly gay kid who faces relentless bullying but always has a sharp comeback ready, which he uses like a shield for himself.

But Simon’s secret is threatened to be exposed when Martin (Logan Miller), who is starring with him in their amateur school production of Cabaret, finds his email open on a school computer and screenshots his messages, threatening to release them unless Simon helps him get with Abby.  The film unfolds with elements of a mystery, and it does keep us guessing as to the identity of Blue, offering plenty of clues and also red herrings along the way, as it builds towards the hugely romantic finale.  Whenever Simon thinks he knows Blue’s identity, that new guy becomes the one that he imagines when he reads his emails, in a very clever cinematic choice.

Nick Robinson is already a familiar face from films like Jurassic World and Everything, Everything, and his performance here cements him as a young actor who is really worth watching.   He does a really wonderful job of bringing Simon to life, striking the perfect balance between confidence and uncertainty, creating a protagonist who is both emotionally textured and relatable to watch.  The rest of the cast also does an excellent job of filling out their roles.  Josh Duhamel has perhaps never been better than he is here, and Jennifer Garner has one scene in particular that is beautifully performed and almost guaranteed to put a lump in your throat.

The other performance that really stood out to me for different reasons is Logan Miller.  Martin is a potentially obnoxious character who does some really manipulative and even cruel things, but he’s also someone who intensely wants to be liked by everyone, yet can’t even get anyone to willingly hang out with them without blackmailing them first.  He’s a natural class clown who can only get people to laugh for the wrong reasons.  Some films would have made him the villain, but he’s not.  He’s another deeply sad character who is trapped in his own way, and Logan Miller portrays him with a surprising amount of depth and sympathy.

The soundtrack features a solid selection of pop songs curated by Jack Antonoff, whose own band Bleachers lends their rousing hits “Wild Heart,” “Rollercoaster” and new track “Alfie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)” to the film.  The film also makes great use of the old Jackson 5 song “Someday at Christmas,” the lyrics of which are allowed to take on deeper meaning as it plays over a beautifully done holiday montage that represents one of the film’s best shifts between heartwarming and absolutely heartbreaking.

Although coming out stories have been the subject of countless indie films, including recent Oscar winners like Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight, Love, Simon is the first time that a gay character has been the lead in a mainstream studio film.  While some have suggested that this lessens the importance of Love, Simon, I say why shouldn’t gay kids have a big, commercially viable high school dramedy to call their own?  The fact that the film takes its cues from the countless straight high school movies before it is the very thing that made Love, Simon so appealing to me.

Yes, this is a mainstream teen movie made for an audience of hip, modern young people who might not bat an eye at the fact that it’s about a dude crushing on another dude, but I think the story resonates in ways that go much deeper than that overly simplistic evaluation.  For me, the fact that this film is arriving at a time when the subject matter is no longer considered to be as revolutionary, and the orientation of movie characters can be openly explored without having to hide it through innuendo and double entendres, is precisely what makes Love, Simon so affecting and even, yes, important.

The film functions as a moving exploration of why someone from a progressive and largely accepting family would still be reluctant to come out, even in a day and age when people – in the western world, at least – are largely encouraged to be themselves, and it does so in a way that struck a deeply personal chord with me.  It works as an emotionally resonant story of the struggle and uncertainty that someone still faces when trying to come out of the closet, even in this sexually open and largely accepting era, and how even the most progressive of parents don’t quite know how to react to the news that their son isn’t who they thought or naturally assumed he was.

Simon is just an average guy.  Nobody would really be shocked that he’s gay, but they don’t really suspect he is either.  They just assume he’s not, because the majority of people aren’t.  Part of his struggle to come out is that he doesn’t want to be treated any differently, and just wants to hold on to who he’s always been.  There’s an amusing scene where he imagines himself going off to university and prolonging his coming out until then so that he can be out and proud on campus, followed by a fantasy musical number set to Whitney Houston’s accidental queer anthem “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” after which he quips in voiceover “well, maybe not that gay.”

Simon lives in a very liberal area, and his parents are tried and true Democrats, with his mother trying to keep up with progressive issues like the Women’s March.  His family and friends wouldn’t mind that he’s gay, so coming out should be easy for him, but it’s not.  Even with the increasing amount of LGBT acceptance and representation in the media, deciding to come out is still ultimately a journey that people have to take on their own, and coming to terms with and accepting who you are doesn’t necessarily get any easier just because the issues are now very much at the forefront of public consciousness.  This is ultimately what Love, Simon explores so well.

The closet can be a pretty comfy place to be, allowing you to observe life from a distance and peak out between the cracks when you want to see the light, and Simon knows this all too well.  But eventually you have to come out if you don’t want the door to be yanked open, exposing you to the world in a way you can’t control.  Yes, Love, Simon might not be the first coming out story put on screen, but it’s a film that really resonated with me for a variety of reasons, and it’s going to mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people.  All the best teen movies do.

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