In the past year, we have seen the walls of mainstream Hollywood - the walls defined by straight white men - begin to tumble down. Wonder Woman running across No Man’s Land or the warriors of Wakanda signalled that the stories so often relegated to small-budget independent filmmaking were starting to step into the light, and that the world was not only ready but willing to embrace them. In its modest way, director Greg Berlanti’s ‘Love, Simon’ follows a similar path. On the surface, it’s about as typical a teen drama as you could expect, cut from the same cloth as John Hughes or ‘The Perks Of Being A Wallflower’. At its heart though, in its wild and precious heart, it has its own wall to tumble down, one that should have come down a long, long time ago.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson, ‘Jurassic World’, ‘Everything, Everything’) is about as typical an American teenager as you could find - close and loyal friends, a loving and caring family, and a safe and happy home. But Simon’s secret is that he’s gay - a fact that, for reasons he cannot articulate, he can’t tell anyone. When he finds out that an anonymous kid at school is also gay, Simon starts an email friendship with him, even though he doesn’t know who this person is, and vice versa. In "Blue", this anonymous pen pal, Simon finds someone who shares his experience and who he can talk to. When Simon’s secret and that relationship is threatened, Simon is forced to try everything to stop it all falling down around him.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s novel ‘Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’, ‘Love, Simon’ fits within the mould of the tried-and-true teen drama, with some of the expected narrative twists, the perennial markers in American high school life (drunken house parties, homecoming, family Christmas, the school musical) and a killer soundtrack mixing old classics and contemporary tunes. Both the screenplay from Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker and Berlanti’s direction establish these parameters early on, and from a technical standpoint, ‘Love, Simon’ is among the more accomplished mainstream teen dramas we’ve seen in years.
It’s what they explore within those parameters though that makes the film quietly and unexpectedly extraordinary. The fact that Simon is the first gay teen protagonist (not a friend or secondary character) in a mainstream Hollywood film is a shocking fact to get your head around, but the film doesn’t waste the opportunity, exploring his journey to understand himself and his sexuality with great integrity and sensitivity. Simon’s sexuality isn’t a token gesture to win brownie points for a studio, but something taken very seriously. The film bubbles over with goofy charm and heartfelt sweetness, but also acknowledges all those markers any queer person would recognise in the coming-out process, with many moments stripping back the charm to land with brutal and sometimes breathtaking honesty. Moments left me gasping through tears, as if someone had pulled elements from my own youth and my own coming-out story. The attention to detail, from first crushes to that internalised homophobia that comes when you think you have to be someone else just because you’re gay, is amongst the finest aspects of the film. There may be a teen fantasy happening on the surface, with Simon falling in love with the words in an email or getting caught up in the romantic lives of his friends to protect himself, but underneath is one of the simplest, clearest and most resonant depictions of a teenager coming to grips with their sexuality in a mainstream film.
And this is the important distinction - one that makes ‘Love, Simon’ a companion to films like ‘Carol’ or ‘Call Me By Your Name’ rather than a film in competition with them. It is the film’s instant familiarity and "ordinariness" that makes it so special, and what hit me so hard during the film’s final act: a typical teen romance where the romance is between two people of the same gender. Queer people aren’t used to seeing themselves at the centre of a slick Hollywood film, especially queer teens. For a teenager to see themselves on screen, to see something akin to their story or experience treated with respect and in a film language they understand and created specifically for them - that is something monumental and cannot be underestimated. ‘Love, Simon’ is a wonder because of its clichés and familiarity, seeing a gay protagonist at the centre of one of the most American of genres, not as a joke but as its hero.
‘Love, Simon’ is a wonder because of its clichés and familiarity, seeing a gay protagonist at the centre of one of the most American of genres, not as a joke but as its hero.
It’s also just one of the most charming films of its kind in many years. The screenplay is often sharp and heartfelt, the direction is clear and precise, and much like the film itself, its stock collection of supporting characters push against their established moulds to be individual and distinct in their own right. It’s a film about the immediate teen experience, one defined by social media and quick transfer of information, and while we’ve seen a lot of this kind of storytelling already, ‘Love, Simon’ handles it with a unconscious ease, allowing it to become part of the texture of the story.
At the centre of the film is Nick Robinson, someone who has been waiting quietly in the wings for his opportunity to shine and does so with aplomb as Simon. It’s in the tiny details, a look or a sigh, that the beauty of his performance lies. One character describes Simon as someone constantly holding his breath, and Robinson finds a deep rumbling sadness in Simon without indulging in dramatic emotional outbursts. There were moments where his attempts to hold himself together broke my heart. The central conceit of Simon’s fear of coming out is that he won’t be the same person he always has been, and that tug-of-war is at the heart of Robinson’s performance. You get the sense that he wholly understands the responsibility he has in playing Simon and what it means to its audience, and the degree to which he shoulders that responsibility is breathtaking.
The supporting cast are also pretty wonderful, and Berlanti’s casting ensures that the diversity doesn’t just end with Simon, in ways that are not always initially obvious. Again, it’s a small gesture, but it’s a start. The standout comes from Jennifer Gardner as Simon’s mother Emily. As with ‘Call Me By Your Name’, one of the film’s finest moments is a talk between parent and child, and the small yet precious exchange between Emily and Simon is as overwhelming in its beautiful simplicity as that between Elio and his father was in its exquisite elegance.
I utterly adored ‘Love, Simon’. It had everything I love about great teen films (even a cheesy dance number). It made me laugh and cry and filled my heart with joy. And as I watched Simon get his great love story, seeing the boy get the boy of his dreams, I just sobbed and sobbed, overwhelmed by the very existence of the film itself, how long it had taken and what a relief that it's finally happened. What I would give to have had this film growing up, to tell me that being gay was okay and something to be proud of. More than that, what a miracle that it can be that for teenagers today, and to think of the lives it might change or save. We adults have Ennis and Therese and Johnny and Elio and Marina. Simon is for them. Giving it five stars may seem extreme when the film itself from an objective technical level doesn’t do anything particularly special, but ‘Love, Simon’ is so very much more than the sum of its parts. It is a milestone, a revelation, a subtle yet seismic shift in the Hollywood mainstream. Now let’s see two girls fall in love, a teen drama about a trans kid finding who they are. Let’s see other teens like Simon get their love story, and let them be as generous, as delicate and as joyous as this. ‘Love, Simon’ is an instant classic, a celebration of the precious beauty of being young and queer and in love for the first time, a film that is wholly good and made for no other reason than to make the world that little bit better. It’s easily one of the most important teen films we’ve ever seen.