The big buzzword in movies right now is “representation,” and for good reason. Some of the most exciting films of the past few years are those that follow some familiar storytelling beats, but with a perspective that ends up creating something fresh. The latest film to push the boundaries of what we’re used to seeing on the big screen, Love, Simon, certainly isn’t the first coming-of-age story about a young gay teen. For anyone who watches indie LGBT films, it’s not even the first story to tackle the concept from a more comedic standpoint. But as the first film of its kind to get a major mainstream push, Love, Simon does have the opportunity to push some boundaries. That it does so while also deviating from some of the norms of queer cinema makes it revelatory.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) wants to assure you he’s just like everyone else, even if he isn’t. If anything, his life is largely above average. He lives in an upper-middle class part of Atlanta with his loving family, he’s got a strong circle of friends, and he enjoys a certain level of popularity at school. Everything’s great in Simon’s life – except for the fact that Simon is in the closet. In his mind, even though he’s sure he’d be supported by those around him if he came out, he also knows that he’ll be treated differently once that happens, and that’s not something he’s willing to risk. When another teen at his school anonymously acknowledges that he’s gay on a blog that’s popular with his classmates, though, Simon messages him and begins to find an outlet to finally talk about what he’s going through. After a classmate discovers Simon’s emails, though, he’s blackmailed into situations that involve messing with his friends’ lives, at the risk of being outed.
I remember when I came out nearly 12 years ago, and even though it’s been years since that happened, I can still remember the heavily internalized tension that I felt up until that point. Even though my family and friends have almost overwhelmingly been supportive since coming out, I wasn’t sure that would be the case. That period of time has played heavily in my mind since watching Love, Simon because, even though my experience don’t exactly mirror Simon’s, it made me remember that sense of fear that everything would change.
At one point when Simon comes out, he’s quick to assure those around him that he’s still the same Simon. I remember trying to make the same assertions when coming out, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as something that wasn’t true to me. Later, after asking someone if they knew if he was gay, Simon’s told that he’s lived the last few years of his life like he’s holding his breath, in stark contrast to the free-spirited way he previously lived. That observation hit a particularly strong nerve, because I remember having a similar conversation not too long after coming out.
I bring this all up, because for all of my years covering not just film, but LGBT films, I can’t think of one that hit my emotional buttons quite like Love, Simon managed to do repeatedly. (In other words, yes, I teared up several times.) Obviously, not everyone gets the positive coming-out experience that I did, or that Simon does, but if nothing else, Love, Simon certainly conveys the emotional experience that many of us have during the process, and that’s not something to take lightly. That it manages to do so while also keeping things, well, light – that’s a welcome development.
Beyond the central thread of Simon’s coming out, Love, Simon does a solid job setting up interesting side stories. While Simon is clearly the center of this story, the film manages to set up those around him in ways that create some dimensions. In his core circle of friends, he’s known two for most of his life, and one for a much shorter period of time. The ways those differences in time come into play help sell a lot of what happens in the film. Simon’s quest to find out more about his anonymous pen pal also drives a good portion of the film, taking a few twists as Simon believes to have found the guy behind the moniker “Blue.” The film even touches on Simon’s internalized homophobia, demonstrated through another kid at school who’s out and targeted for bullying.
The film’s casting is also strong across the board, with some actors deserving special attention. Robinson, who’s got a pretty strong list of credits to his name, is possibly the best he’s been in this role. He sells the simultaneous sense of confidence and caution that’s necessary for this particular character. As his blackmailer, Logan Miller manages to evoke some surprising sympathy. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, meanwhile, come pretty close to the level of Olive’s parents in Easy A when it comes to being both supportive and hip. They’re dream movie parents, in other words.
Love, Simon is already generating plenty of buzz due to its status as a high-profile release with a gay teen at its center, and that’s not nothing. Thankfully, Love, Simon is more than that. It’s a fun coming-of-age story that also manages to yank at some heartstrings. It also pushes away from some of the more tragic elements that can dominate LGBT films. By adhering instead to some of the more familiar beats of coming-of-age films, Love, Simon manages to breathe a bit of life into what these kinds of films can do. For fans of the genre, and for anyone who’s part of the LGBT community or is an ally, this is a must-see.