Both the strength and weakness of Love, Simon lie in how bland it is.
As a piece of filmmaking craft, it’s competent, if unremarkable. The camera exists mostly to capture properly framed images of the actors, and the screenplay serves up a couple of interesting twists and some memorable jokes but also occasionally forgets to develop supposedly important characters. (I don’t think I could tell you one thing about the titular Simon’s “best friend,” Leah, beyond that she’s his best friend — a relationship I would not have guessed at had Simon not frequently referred to her as such.)
But when you consider that Love, Simon is a major studio release — a teen romance, no less — explicitly about a gay protagonist who’s grappling with the best way to come out to his family and friends, the very fact that it’s so blandly competent seems all the more remarkable. We’re living in a time when gay kids can have their own sweetly mediocre studio movies with all the best intentions. Isn’t that something?
So while I could — and will, in just a moment — write a comprehensive review of Love, Simon, maybe all you really need to know is that the packed audience I saw it with, filled with teenagers and twentysomethings in various romantic permutations, ate it up. They cheered at the final reveal of Simon’s secret pen pal (the other closeted gay kid in his school — the two chat under pseudonyms and don’t know each other’s identities) and at a teacher standing up against bullies. They laughed at the best jokes. The two guys on a date sitting next to me even teared up during the movie’s third act, as Simon finally, painstakingly comes out of the closet to his loved ones.
So pointing out the things that feel a little familiar about Love, Simon feels like being more of a spoilsport than usual. If you feel like you might like it, you probably will. And if you want to know how it works as a movie, hey, stick around. Even those two guys I sat next to, as we exited the theater, started listing the clichés in the story, before finally saying, “I still really liked it.”
Love, Simon can’t quite grapple with some of its story’s emotional turmoil
The best thing about Love, Simon is how it depicts the fact that coming out of the closet, no matter how supportive your environment, is still a difficult thing to do. In its most honest moments, it depicts Simon (Nick Robinson) and his secret pen pal (who posted a message amounting to “I’m gay and no one knows” on what’s essentially a PostSecret just for the duo’s high school) simply existing in the space where they know they’re gay, but nobody else in their lives does, a kind of possibility space where they can guess at what will happen when their secrets are finally out there, but where they’d rather not just yet.
The movie’s script, by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (adapted from the book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli), really digs into the emotional conflict Simon goes through as he builds himself up to coming out, and questions why the emotional burden is on LGBTQ people to come out. (A decently funny montage features his friends all coming out as heterosexual.)
Director Greg Berlanti — best known for his long list of TV credits, including my beloved WB series Everwood, to which this has some superficial similarities, but also the enjoyable 2000 romantic dramedy The Broken Hearts Club, about a group of gay friends — also shoots these sequences in a fashion that fills in fun little visual details as Simon thinks he figures out who his pen pal is, then erases them as he realizes he didn’t make the right guess.
The problem, then, is that the movie feels obligated to have a bigger plot, which ends up being more emotionally fraught than it can handle. When Simon’s secret is exposed to the nerdy, desperate-for-friends Martin (Logan Miller), Martin blackmails Simon into helping him win the affections of Simon’s pal Abby (Alexandra Shipp, in a winning performance that will almost certainly lead to bigger roles).
This blackmail causes Simon to slowly erode various foundations of his friendships with Abby, Leah (Katherine Langford), and stereotypical funny jock Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). And as his friends find out what he’s done — as they must — the movie isn’t quite sure how to deal with the emotional fallout, mostly relegating it offscreen.
Simon does some genuinely terrible things to his friends, and though the movie is patient in explaining how much of it stems from his need to come out on his own terms, rather than Martin’s terms, it struggles to make Simon’s friends’ reactions match up to the betrayal they’ve experienced.
This ends up being less of a problem than you might expect, largely thanks to how thoroughly the third act turns into the story of Simon realizing how strong his support system is, with some excellent work from Jennifer Garner (still one of the best on-screen criers) and Josh Duhamel as his parents. But the movie does struggle a bit with how to show Simon’s path to some sort of understanding of what he did, mostly just suggesting the passage of time heals all wounds.
Then again, when you’re a teenager, it kind of does. Love, Simon is not a radical departure from the teen comedy format, except for the fact that its protagonist makes it a major departure largely by default. Sometimes, the biggest revolutions happen in places you might not expect them to, and if Love, Simon helps even one gay teen come to terms with their sexuality, in the friendly confines of familiar movie formulas, hey, it was probably worth it.
Love, Simon is playing in theaters nationwide.