When was the last time you visited a mainstream multiplex and the sight of two men kissing on screen wasn’t greeted with either uncomfortable laughter from the audience or caterwauling rumbles of disapproval? Well now, looky here: the curtain-lowering same-sex kiss that closes Love, Simon will leave viewers cheering.
Look how far we’ve come from that milestone in gay cinema, The Boys in the Band. Hollywood has finally reached a point in its history where co-writer Elizabeth Berger can pen a picture she describes as “the first studio movie at this level with a gay teen as its romantic lead.” It took only fifty years.
In a movie that sets its sights on a myriad of leading-edge targets — some connect, others fall wide of the mark — there’s nothing more pressing to the filmmakers than to address the need that’s arisen in our left-swiping society for people to master the art of acceptance. Not tolerance. That implies passive permission. Love, Simon sets its sights on nothing less than the unconditionally favorable approval that comes with acceptance.
“I’m just like you,” are the first words Simon (Nick Robinson), our not-yet-ready-to-come-out high-schooler chooses to open the picture. Mom (Jennifer Garner) can be a tad over-nurturing while dad (Josh Duhamel) gently ribs him about not having a girlfriend, or unknowingly refers to another kid as “fruity.” Minor flaws notwithstanding, Simon comes from good breeding stock. (His taste in music, however, reflects the personalities of two older screenwriters, not a 16-year-old teenager living in today’s society.)
Many have been quick to credit John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles) as the film’s prime inspiration, but I detect a smaller-screen influence at work. There are moments in this that could very well have been lifted chapter and verse from an episode of Saved by the Bell. Take Principal Worth (Tony Hale), the nerdlike, rib-elbowing authoritarian who wants to be every student’s pal. (Though Worth could have borrowed a page from the Mr. Belding Playbook by never discussing his sexcapades on Tinder with a student. Nor would a drama teacher dare draw an analogous comparison between a student’s trumpet and their penis.)
Behind Simon stands a power base of good friends, give or take Martin (Logan Miller). Nobody likes Martin, particularly Simon. Imagine Martin as Screech with a pronounced mean streak, an even more vexatious slug who’ll let nothing get in the way of his love for Lisa Turtle surrogate Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Whenever he’s on screen, you can feel the air-brakes kick in to bring the momentum to a halt. Credit the filmmakers for not bringing pathos to the party: Martin is an irritation from fade in to fade out. While I’m always the first to embrace a great cinematic jagoff, Martin isn’t a patch on gentle dimwit Screech, and Miller never even approaches the blithe repugnance an actor of John C. Reilly’s stature brings to Dean Ziegler in Cedar Rapids.
An anonymous entry on a chat site reveals that Simon is not the only one in his class who’s gay. Our hero begins exchanging intimately detailed emails with “Blue,” the incognito handle his mystery pal goes by. Life lesson: it’s always wise to log out when using a public computer. When Martin follows Simon online at the school library, he not only stumbles across the exchanges, he forever preserves them as screen captures. It’s just a matter of time before the spiteful jerk threatens to out both classmates unless Simon puts in a good word for him with Abby.
Why the filmmakers (or was it novelist Becky Albertalli?) decided to go with a mystery framework puzzles me. Keeping Blue’s identity a secret from both Simon and the audience plays like a cheat, particularly because, at three different points in the film, Blue is assigned a face (Mr. Hitchcock taught me well). This isn’t a Charlie Chan programmer, so why leave audiences guessing? The emotional payoff would have even more rewarding had the writers chosen to follow the more challenging path, rather than turning it into a whodunit.
If the film’s broader commercial strokes fall short, it’s the quieter moments between characters that allow director Greg Berlanti ample room to endue Love, Simon with its fervent charm. And while I’ll go to my grave without ever having seen a film with the word “Jurassic” in its title, Jurassic World will probably be best remembered for introducing the world to Nick Robinson.
At every moment in the film, Robinson plays the part of a kid in a constant stage of apprehension, as if holding hostage a precious part of his identity. Without giving too much away, there’s a bit of the bastard at work inside Simon that makes his character all the more human. And thank god that even in light of the homophobic slurs cast, no scenes end with retaliatory punches being exchanged. The only time Robinson comes up short is when he arrives at a Halloween party: as John Lennon, the kid makes a great Tommy Wiseau.
This movie is further proof that one must never judge a film by its trailer, no matter how schmaltzy an aftertaste it leaves. Normally, when I like a mainstream movie, audiences stay away in droves. But even if you don’t make love like Simon, I’m guessing you’re gonna love Love, Simon.