Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Runtime: 110 “Get off your phone! This is real life!” minutes
Being a teenager was hard. Probably. A lot of people don’t remember that time because they’ve erased it from their memory. Kind of like the pains of childbirth, only far more virginal for many of us. Them—I mean them! The most stringent test you can put on a film about teenagers is asking yourself whether or not it remembers the pain and ([very] sexual) frustration that came with that period. Love, Simon, based on a book by Becky Albertalli, remembers those growing pains all too well and handles them with more maturity than this ([very] sexual) introductory paragraph.
Simon Spiers (Nick Robinson) is a normal teenage boy. That’s it. The script calls for him to inform us “except, I have a secret…”, but that’s normal for teenage boys. Simon’s is that he is gay and in the closet, which he reveals anonymously to an equally as anonymous peer from his school on the internet (and you can probably already detect why the title of this film is extremely sweet). Simon has a loving family, loyal friends, and seems to do well academically, but no one but him knows that he might just be the only guy at the school not interested in Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Well, the only guy besides that anonymous peer. Love, Simon treats the very presence of a secret as the cause of Simon’s misery; not the fact that he is gay. Over the course of Love, Simon, he will be teased and blackmailed, and learn the value of not leaving browsers open, but it is the presence of the secret that is the true antagonist. Albertalli’s story had its setting in Atlanta, Georgia, and may have been more focused on homophobia, but that is an assumption of mine. Love, Simon wisely gentrifies the location like Neil LaBute did with Your Friends and Neighbors (1998). This story could happen anywhere and happen to anyone.
Simon’s motivation for staying in the closet is not based on a fear of violence or being disowned from his family, but of control. Similar to an eating disorder, Simon’s ownership over his secret allows him to steer one element of his life. When the truth of Simon inevitably comes out, he tells the person responsible that it was supposed to be his choice; his terms; his decision when and how he comes out. He has been robbed of his ability to maintain and monitor a large aspect of his identity, and it’s refreshing to see a film that understands that about teenagers, and doesn’t pin the dramatic tension on the direct consequences of such a revelation. In fact, when Simon’s secret comes out, his friends seem less bothered by that truth than the lies Simon has told around it. And we understand why, even though we like Simon and never see him as malicious, but the film doesn’t remove that moral responsibility from him out of pity for the character. It respects Simon too much to hold him to any lesser standard.
At just 23 years of age, Nick Robinson handles the role of Simon Spiers with proper poise. We’re with him on this journey, and believe that he is a nice kid. When things start falling apart for him, Robinson doesn’t play Simon as too malleable. His frustration leaks out, sometimes explosively, but never impatiently. When he finds himself in trouble, he never seems to abandon the kindness of the character, even though he finds the need to stand up for himself, and he is very angry. When he acts selfishly to protect his secret, I forgave Simon for his transgressions long before other characters had. This is a confident and competent performance in a confident and competent film, and it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role any better.
The other performances are all extremely solid. Simon’s core group of friends are all played authentically and sweetly by everyone involved. The stand out is Shipp’s Abby, who becomes more and more radiant as the film progresses. But Katherine Langford and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. deliver perfectly charming moments too. As the closest thing the film has to a villain, Logan Miller is funny, irritating, and sympathetic in equal measure—a tall order, to be sure. Tony Hale plays the technophobic mess of the school principal, reminiscent of his Arrested Development co-star, David Cross’s, in She’s the Man (2006). Cross channelled Tobias Fünke for that role, but here Hale is quite a long reach from Buster Bluth. His attempts to have reciprocal relationships with his students are spectacular failures, and he brings a nice energy to the film. Just as lively is Natasha Rothwell’s drama teacher. I discover that Rothwell does not have a Wikipedia page of her own, but that hopefully soon changes after her expert delivery in this film lands her plenty of other roles. She is responsible for the biggest laugh in the film.
The most touching drama comes out of Simon’s interactions with his family, however. Josh Duhamel adds almost unnecessary nuance to Simon’s father. As the clueless, but well-meaning father (imagine Neil Flynn’s performance in Mean Girls), he is perfectly clueless and well-meaning. When the truth comes out about Simon’s orientation, he is reeled, but we get the sense he is more confused as to how to be supportive instead of doubting whether or not he is supportive, and that confusion frustrates a man that seems to value simplicity. He asks Simon when he knew, and when Simon tells him, he seems more ashamed as a father that he never knew or couldn’t be trusted with it. It’s a touching moment that subverts the predictable obstacles of toxic masculinity. Jennifer Garner as the mother is the opposite of the overbearing mother trope. As a psychologist, she is well-equipped to analyse the behaviour of her children, but mainly chooses to stay out of their private lives and to respect their privacy. Simon blatantly addresses that he knows his sexuality will be accepted by his family. He doesn’t feel like he’s letting them down by telling them the truth about who he is, but because he hasn’t told them the truth about who he is. It’s a refreshing take on the parent dynamics that could so very easily have been played as adversarial even a decade ago.
Films like Love, Simon are important, because they go a long way to normalising certain aspects of our culture in the mainstream consciousness. There were moments where I felt like the film could potentially risk falling into the domain of the previous century’s preoccupation with the link between sexuality and morality. Films like Far from Heaven (2002) look at that relationship in a serious and useful way. It is important to consider the consequences of sexual repression and socio-religious pressures during, say, the 1950s. But it’s also important to have films that say being honest about who you are is tough, regardless of how okay gay is, and don’t treat deviations from “heteronormativity” (if hetero can be considered normative) as major social curiosities. In fact, the film has fun with this notion as it presents a fantasy of “straight” people coming out, which is on the nose, but got large laughs from the audience.
“Slice-of-life teenage drama” is such a film review cliché, but clichés exist to create a map of familiarity. If films like Love, Simon are the evolution of the “slice-of-life teenage drama”, then I will be very happy, and think film will be better off. Love, Simon doesn’t fall into the trap of mining its subject for melodrama and importantly respects that there are still difficulties identifying as a member of the LGBTQI+ community. Love, Simon does its best to suggest that this shouldn’t be an issue because teenagers frankly have enough on their plate as it is. Films like this are surprisingly challenging to make, hard to find, and refreshing for the palate. It is important for this to become the norm, and for films as sweet and well-meaning as Love, Simon to become a familiar map.