Love, Simon- Featured

To my knowledge, LOVE, SIMON, is the first mainstream coming out story released in theaters. While network TV has brought us several such narratives—of notably varying quality and seriousness over the years—cinema has seemed stubbornly disinterested in the experience that more and more high school students are having firsthand or bearing witness to.

Therefore, LOVE, SIMON is praiseworthy on some level for merely existing. But does the content live up to its place in history?

Love, Simon- The first day after coming out.
Nick Robinson can feel the other teens watching in LOVE, SIMON. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

The Idea Behind LOVE, SIMON

LOVE, SIMON’s protagonist, Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is — as he will tell us several times — a pretty average 17-year-old living in an Atlanta suburb. He is part of a strong friend quadrant whom he does nearly everything with. He has known Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeberg Jr.) just this side of forever. And although Abby (Alexandra Shipp) is a relative newcomer, she was still welcome with open arms.  Yet even with this strong central group of friends, Simon obviously has friends in all sorts of social cliques. He moves among the drama club, the jocks, and the “I’m just here because of state law and I want to get into college” types with equal ease.

Meanwhile, his home life seems similarly normal to ideal. He has a fairly incredible relationship with his high school sweetheart parents Jack and Emily (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner). They have a nearly conflict-free relationship too, the kind of friendly but still passionate marriage we all hope for. Add in a precocious but never annoying sister Nora (Talitha Bateman) and a cute dog and the recipe is complete.

However, Simon does all this without telling anyone his true internal life. He is gay. While he has known for years and is sure everyone he cares about will love him regardless, he just can’t seem to tell anyone. Instead, he walks around, largely happy but with the reality of being closeted nagging at him.

Yet all that begins to change when another student confesses he’s gay under the pseudonym “Blue” on the local teen secrets Facebook page. Simon reaches out to “Blue” through a fake email address, and the two become confidantes and perhaps a bit more.

When another classmate discovers Simon’s secret, however, things get complicated lickety-split.

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The Writing

Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker’s dialogue feels authentic for teens without leaning too heavily on slang. Moreover, the writers behind LOVE, SIMON seem to “get” teenagers. The characters act and react in ways that are often irrational or overblown but never feel inauthentic. You will be frustrated with the characters in the same way you would be frustrated with a real life teen.

Character-wise, everyone exists in kind of a middle space. With the exception of the school’s two homophobes, everyone gets a moment of depth to enrich them

However, the writing stumbles with building the world. It feels bizarrely behind the times at point. This is aided by a soundtrack with throwback songs and bands, like the heavily featured Bleachers, with a throwback sound. On the other hand, LOVE, SIMON also feels kind of utopian. As noted earlier, Simon only receives pushback on his sexual identity from two token assholes. It’s encouraging but feels a bit too good to be true.

The screenplay’s best moments are when they directly address the expectations people have of the coming-out process and of being a gay teen. One such moment, a coming-out straight montage, has be spoiled by trailers but remains effectively funny in context.

Even better is when Simon imagines what “out” college life will be like. Seemingly devolving into stereotype, LOVE, SIMON casts college as a musical filled with handsome, fit, well-dressed men. However, you see that Simon is consistently out of step with the relatively simple dance moves. Even in his fantasy world of pleasant gay stereotypes, he doesn’t fit in. Without calling too much attention to it, the scene speaks to the fear that even if he is out, he won’t belong.

Love, Simon- The Spiers relax to watch an anniversary video
Nick Robinson, Talitha Bateman, Jennifer Garner, and Josh Duhamel get in some good family time in LOVE, SIMON. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Casting The Leads

Nick Robinson is affable enough as Simon. As noted above, the screenplay does not give him easy outs. It makes sure to show him as a good person who also is doing some lousy selfish stuff. However, I would’ve liked to see Robinson give his bad actions a bit more bite. Even at his worst, he feels nice, which undercuts the conflict at the start of the third act a bit. No one can stay mad at this guy so you don’t really feel the pain of this brief interruption in his connection to his friends.

On the other hand, he is so affable that it made me miss one of the moments that he is at his absolute worst. Earlier in the film, he rages at someone for robbing him of his coming out. Simon reasonably says that it was something for him to do, whenever and however he wanted. A part of the film’s climax, however, involves Simon more or less daring Blue to come out publicly, in essence forcing the character’s hand. If Robinson had gotten a little dirt on his Simon, the moment might read a bit more realistic but might also lose its sweet amber glow of a climax.

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Casting the Rest of the LOVE, SIMON Call Sheet

As noted above, the script mostly gives its characters depth through their actions not their personalities. That can make things hard on the actors but mostly everyone acquits themselves well.

Josh Duhamel, an actor I’ve never particularly cared about, is a pleasant surprise. His Jack has the right dollop of institutionalized homophobia—shown through his humor—while still being obviously decent.  When he later realizes how shitty even those minor jokes could be, he nicely plays the shame of a dad who feels like he failed his son.

It makes me sad and will continue to make me sad that Garner didn’t break bigger. She is such a gifted physical actor—for action or comedy—that it’s a shame she has been pigeonholed as “mom” as of late. That said, she’s good as the therapist mom here. Or maybe I’m over-identifying a touch.

Amongst the teens, everyone does solid work except perhaps Logan Miller. However, his Martin is a rough part that would’ve been hard to redeem for almost anyone. Mostly a collection of nerd clichés and neediness, only a late scene where he tries “rescue” Simon hints at Miller’s skill.

Love, Simon- The friends take a stroll
Jorge Lendeberg Jr., Nick Robinson, Alexandra Shipp, and Katherine Langford walk around like they own the dang place in LOVE, SIMON. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Filming

Director Greg Berlanti has a good touch with actors, especially young adult actors, and you can feel it here. There is nothing to knock your socks off in terms of cinematography, but the movie looks right, if that makes sense. It matches the appearance of other teen and romantic comedies which is important. The point of the movie is, more or less, set up by Simon’s first words. It’s meant to be a fairly average endeavor except about being a gay teen, not a straight one.

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Striking the Set

LOVE, SIMON is an important cultural milestone. I wish, therefore, I could tell you that it is as good as other important mainstream representational films, like BLACK PANTHER. Or, even better, indie coming out stories like BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER. Alas, I cannot.

However, it is not bad either. The cast is good, the writing does some nice things, and the film never feels saggy. In some ways, while it might not succeed as an excellent movie, it might be exactly what is needed: A pleasantly sweet story about a teen coming out that feels for all the world like many other pleasantly sweet stories about teens.

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