Gay relationships are nothing new in cinema. Hell even recently one of the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars focused purely on a relationship between two men. However never before has a major studio put the focus squarely on the love between two teenage men. In what has been called a revolutionary move in cinematic storytelling, 20th Century Fox did just that. Not bad for a studio that (for now) is owned by a corporation traditionally conservative in political views. “Love, Simon” has been touted as a groundbreaking teen romance that has been welcomed with open arms by moviegoers nationwide. However the question remains: does this movie live up to the hype or is does it simply milk its historical theme? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Love, Simon”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Love, Simon” is based on the Becky Albertalli novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” and focuses on Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a closeted gay high school teenager. Simon has a pretty perfect family, a loving and successful mother and father (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and an ambitious sister (Talitha Bateman), and spends his days going through the motions and hanging with his best friends Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) who are all unaware of Simon’s hidden secret. When Simon comes across a post from another anonymous gay student code named “Blue” he begins an email chat that leads to the two of them opening up to each other about the struggles of hiding their sexuality. As this relationship grows stronger, Simon tries to determine who Blue true is. When his emails fall into the hands of a quirky student with a crush on Abby however, Simon finds himself blackmailed and puts his friendships and reputation on the line as he struggles with whether or not to reveal to the world who he truly is while also guessing at Blue’s true identity as he falls deeper in love with the mysterious stranger.
A lot of this film is put squarely on the shoulders of Nick Robinson in his most complex role to date as Simon, a closeted gay teenager who finds himself in a life changing situation when he falls in love and is blackmailed at the same time. This is a challenging role that demanded the utmost respect and commitment from the actor and Robinson does a very good job with it. Robinson’s portrayal of a young man struggling with a secret that could change his entire life oozes maturity and poise as he presents Simon as just another kid. He’s a loving brother, a devoted son, and a fierce friend, but he hides the most important aspect of himself away for fear that the world around him either won’t accept it or will see him differently. This internal struggle is presented subtly throughout the movie with Robinson perfectly capturing the persona of an insecure teenager. We can relate to Simon’s struggle, even if his secret might not resonate with all of us, and we understand his frustration. This was an important role, one that would show young audiences that it was alright to be yourself, and Robinson hit it out of the park. While the stereotypes of gay men are present in another openly gay character, Robinson shows none of it in Simon and instead normalizes homosexuality the way it needs to be. His take on Simon is a highlight of a film that truly takes its groundbreaking premise to heart.
Robinson does his job with the help of a devoted cast of friends beside him played by Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. who at some points do fall into the clichés of the genre, but for the most part act as a great support group for Simon throughout the film. At the beginning they are your typical, second class group of losers who don’t fit in with the popular kids but aren’t at the bottom of the food chain either. Their relationship with Simon is critical throughout the film and plays into his struggles as the story progresses. What was cool is I could see these friendships in real life. I could relate to them personally, even the dramatic separation we see come to light later in the story. None of the actors play this lightly, the all give it everything to bring this group of misfits to life. You also have the parents, played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, who have to manage a revelation about their son and through it all every actor plays well into their roles with shock, surprise, and understanding as they come to understand Simon better. It’s uncomfortable and fascinating to watch how people close to Simon react to the revelations and I found myself actively routing for him to be understood. Just as Robinson has a lot on his shoulders the supporting cast did as well and most of them pull through, providing decent and age appropriate performances of high schoolers with their own crossroads and personalities while giving hope to many young men (and women frankly) that coming out doesn’t have to be as scary as it seems.
The third part in this puzzle of teen angst is Logan Miller as Martin Addison (shown in the above photo behind the group because I couldn’t find a standalone screenshot), an awkward and animated classmate of Simon’s who discovers Simon’s emails with Blue and uses them to blackmail Simon into hooking him up with one of his friends. This creates the main conflict of the story outside of Simon’s search for Blue. Martin, despite actually being a slightly charming and well-meaning dork of a person, is meant to represent people who don’t quite understand the struggle of being a gay man and how special and scary it is to come out. Logan Miller’s performance is way over the top in all the right ways giving us a misunderstood high schooler who finds himself in a situation of desperation eventually performing a heinous act. Without going too much into detail in an obvious attempt to avoid a spoiler, I will say Miller handles his character’s role well given that he’s the closest thing to a main antagonist this love story has. Martin has his own flaws and serves as a powerful reminder of respect to viewers. He’s an important character that shows anyone can be the source of prejudice and internet-based bullying even when they mean no harm. As the film progressed I found myself mixed on Martin as a character and emotionally invested in who he chose to be and how he acted. This is a performance Logan Miller clearly took to heart with great results.
“Love, Simon” is a groundbreaking concept that doesn’t FEEL groundbreaking and that’s a good thing. The movie is not self-aware of the importance of its own characters and love story which prevents it from going overboard with its messages of self-acceptance, identity and love. Yes, there are moments where the screenplay drives home the concept a little too on the nose, but they are few and far between. Overall “Love, Simon” overpowers its status as a history making landmark film and takes on a life of its own, depicting the struggles of coming out and finding love as natural, coming of age experiences rather than something uniquely special. To some this might seem blasphemous, but in reality it makes coming out a truly human effort. While I personally have never been in a situation of having to make such an announcement in my own life (as a straight male) “Love, Simon” felt very real to me in its depiction of this struggle and the entire time it was very easy to see and understand the internal turmoil Simon was facing. It’s actually very eye opening. While it leans on many romantic comedy clichés, “Love, Simon” revolutionizes them by adapting them to a new kind of romance audiences young and old aren’t used to seeing on the big screen giving us a fantastically charming, uplifting and, yes, funny look at one young man’s most defining life moment to date.
Most importantly though is handles everything and everyone with a certain amount of respect and dignity. I touched on this a bit in the acting, but it’s not just the characters, it’s also the story and overall concept that are presented with taste. From the main character to the main antagonist, everyone gets some form of redemption and no one person is permanently presented as despicable. Even Martin, for all that he does, gets his moment to shine both before and after he is shown to be a person with questionable morals and in this way no one individual is made out to be anything more than what they are, people. The conflicts between Simon and his friends and parents feel natural and understandable given how his attempt to keep his secret hurts them, but their turnaround and rekindling their relationships with Simon also feel acceptable and sincere. “Love, Simon” is a rare teen comedy gem that takes itself as seriously as it has to, but never goes overboard. It trusts the viewer to understand the emotional weight of the story and is unafraid to tread on ground once thought to be taboo. While it might not be up to me as a straight man to decide how effectively this film portrays the coming-of-age story of a closeted gay teen, as someone who once dealt with my own shameful homophobia I will say that this is an expertly crafted romance story that SHOULD open the eyes of many. This is a story that presents the humanity and reality of young gay man and the struggle he faces in today’s world to have his moment and find true love against the judgmental thoughts of the world we live in.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
As many teen romcoms tend to do, “Love, Simon” has its share of obnoxious characters and while Martin is the MOST obnoxious and actually works, a lot of the others kind of took me out of the film at times. The movie features a vice principal who wants to relate a little too much with the young crowd, a drama teacher who seems a little too mouthy for someone working with even high school kids and a openly gay classmate (the only one in the story other than Simon and Blue) who is a little too on the nose as a walking stereotype. While each of these characters play into the story effectively, they’re all clear caricatures meant to pander and didn’t feel as natural, fluid or even necessary as other characters in the larger story. It’s such a smooth and well-crafted teen romance that having an out-of-touch school official just feels random and shoehorned in for a few laughs, even if those laughs are pretty natural and real. The movie didn’t need these characters, at least not to the extent that it shoves them down our throats.
The main issue I have with “Love, Simon” however are the subtle dangers hidden within its story and screenplay. “Love, Simon” is a great movie, don’t get me wrong. However the conflicts Simon endures give off a strange impression that, to the wrong person, could be interpreted in a way that defeats the purpose of its landmark story. As a product of its targeting of younger audiences, “Love, Simon” leans on a story structure and a few cliches that, for better or worse, do make Simon’s hidden homosexuality an inconvenience to those around him even if it’s not his sexuality that drives the conflict. In some ways it works, but where it truly hurts the theme is in his social life. In many ways, “Love, Simon” puts the blame on Simon and shows little initial understanding from his friends or family as to why he keeps his secret and why he does what he does to keep it preserved, even at their expense. On one hand this could serve as a powerful testament to the dangers of hiding who you are, but once we see Simon suffer in different ways at home and at school, even in front of his friends, and no one seems to show empathy until it’s convenient for them it’s then that “Love, Simon” delves into formulaic territory and somewhat betrays it’s message of acceptance. It recovers quickly and this is only a blemish in the film’s story, but it’s one that, to the right viewer, could be more insulting and scary than uplifting and inspirational. However, I will admit this is the kind of hole in a story you only truly discover when you decide to tear and movie apart and critique it like I do.
“Love, Simon” has its share of issues, but they’re few and far between. While it does add in some pandering character tropes and opens doors for misinterpretations, its moral core remains intact and the overall movie is actually very consistent depending on a crew of young, capable actors to bring its love story to fruition. “Love, Simon” might make history as the first major studio production featuring a gay teen romance, but it rises above its own significance and never gets bogged down in trying to live up to the hype. The filmmakers and actors simply let the story play out and hit all the right notes to satisfy the many emotional triggers you’d expect it to hit without being too campy or too contrived. It’s a well-acted, scripted and directed story filled with plenty of heart and charm that isn’t afraid to delve into very difficult themes that today’s world kind of needs to see. If nothing else it’s a tasteful movie that balances its romantic subplot with a coming-of-age scenario relevant to modern society. “Love, Simon” had a lot on its shoulders and it pulled it all off nicely giving us one of the more memorable love stories in mainstream cinema in some time. Like many classics of the past such as “Dirty Dancing” and “The Breakfast Club”, “Love, Simon” speaks to a generation in a way that might be underappreciated now, but should leave an impact for years to come.