Review: “Love, Simon” is Necessary, Groundbreaking but Cliche
March 30, 2018
The first major studio rom-com with a gay teen protagonist, “Love, Simon” paves the way for more feel-good LGBTQ+ movies. While not without common cliches that drag down many movies oriented toward teens, the movie presents the innocent, soft side of queer love rarely shown on the big screen.
The film is directed by Greg Berlanti, who identifies as gay and has been bringing queer representation to the TV screen since he pioneered the first “passionate” same-sex kiss on primetime TV in 2002 in “Dawson’s Creek” (he’s also involved in much of the Arrowverse and “Riverdale.”) Berlanti helped adapt the movie from Becky Albertalli’s well-received novel, “Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda.”
“Love, Simon”’s Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is an average high school senior — as he makes sure to remind the audience — who grapples with keeping his sexuality a secret. When another student, going by the pseudonym “Blue,” posts on the commonly viewed gossip website that he’s gay, Simon leaps at the opportunity to connect with him. Simon and Blue email back and forth, and Simon finds himself falling for Blue while speculating who Blue is. But when another student, Martin, gets a hold of their emails, Martin blackmails Simon — if Simon doesn’t comply, he fears being outed will scare Blue away.
The Talon evaluates “Love, Simon”’s cinematic standing and LGBTQ+ representation. The following reviews contain spoilers.
“Love, Simon” is the feel-good rom-com that the LGBTQ+ community has been waiting for. Not only is its representation of gay characters done well, it does what many recent movies featuring queer characters don’t: it reminds viewers that gay love can be just as innocent and happy as straight love.
“Love, Simon” is a big f**k you to the Hays Code, the first set of film censorship guidelines that dictated all “sinners” portrayed on screen had to be punished. During the Code’s popularity from 1922-1945, being gay was considered a punishable offense. Not only does the movie revolve around Simon Spier’s sexuality, but he gets his happy ending, complete with cheers and support from his friends. No queerbaiting nor punishment for Simon; his hardships are only those inherent in coming out and the main conflict in the plot.
Want to know more about queerbaiting? Read Jocelyn’s article on queerbaiting here.
While the plot is fairly predictable and doesn’t have many heart wrenching twists and turns, a perfect ending is exactly what’s needed when it comes to gay media. Under the Hays Code, gay characters on screen suffered beheadings and other violent deaths. Even after use of the Code stopped, members of the community continued to be punished — through gay characters being killed so often, this pattern has a name: “bury your gays.” In contrast, “Love, Simon” reminds members of the community that not all of their stories have to be tragic. In fact, gay people deserve these happy love stories just as much as straight people.
The movie is based off of Becky Albertalli’s novel, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” and Albertalli’s depth of research into the coming of age experience unique to gay youth is part of what makes the characters so accurate and carefully portrayed. Albertalli identifies as straight, but she works as a clinical psychologist and learns from her young, queer patients about their experiences. She incorporates this knowledge of their experiences into her writing while making sure to keep her patients’ stories confidential. Not all queer representation needs to be done by members of the LGBTQ+ community, but all queer representation does need to be well-researched.
In bringing Albertalli’s story to the big screen, director Greg Berlanti fought to ensure it remained accurate to the LGBTQ+ experience. Before Berlanti joined the movie, only straight people were working on it, Berlanti told BuzzFeed News. Berlanti integrates his own experience in growing up gay into the movie, and puts what Berlanti needed to hear after coming out into the mouths of Simon’s mother and father: “I still love you” and “you deserve love.”
Beyond the space “Love, Simon” occupies in a legacy of LGBTQ+ media, the movie itself shows beautiful, relatable insight into the gay experience. One scene in particular was where Simon sits with the only other out gay kid at school, Ethan, after Simon is outed by another student. Ethan reaches out to Simon, telling Simon he could have told Ethan that he was gay. Sharing his own experience with his mom not telling his grandparents he was gay and acting like she wished Ethan was straight, Ethan shows Simon that while Ethan may be confidently flamboyant and sharp-tongued, he still experiences issues with his family and their perception of his sexuality.
Here, Berlanti captures the “community” in LGBTQ+ community. Simon and Ethan never interact before this scene but find common ground in their journeys with their sexuality, and however brief that connection might be, it’s still there and immediately strong.
However, “Love, Simon” does shun flamboyance, creating a narrow-minded image of what an “acceptable” gay person looks like. Simon himself shies away from being “too flashy” with his sexuality, notably in one scene where he imagines himself going off to college being proud about being gay in the midst of flash mob dancers sporting rainbow clothing. But in the midst of the daydream he jolts himself out of it, saying “maybe not that gay.”
While Ethan isn’t made to be a dim-witted laughingstock, his character is significantly less fleshed out than Simon’s more masculine presentation of Simon’s sexuality. “Love, Simon” makes a lot of progress in LGBTQ+ representation, though it still falls into ogling the stereotype of the feminine gay man, an extremely valid presentation of one’s sexuality.
Outside of the two queer characters in the movie, Simon’s family and friends show what it means to be a good ally to the LGBTQ+ community. The first time Simon comes out, it’s to his friend Abby, who he’s only known for a few months. She reacts perfectly: when prompted, she says she’s not surprised, and that she loves him. Any surprise would have suggested that Simon hid a large part of his identity successfully. The movie doesn’t specify, but he could have changed the way he walked, dressed, or talked to hide the fact he was gay, and any surprise would have indicated these changes to how he presents himself tricked people into thinking he was straight. This process would have been one that placed Simon at odds with his identity, and being successful in doing so would have been a testament to how well he was able to hide away that part of himself. Abby’s continuous love despite knowing about his sexuality is what Simon wants most, and that’s exactly what he gets.
Simon’s sister, Nora, takes on a more challenging ally role. After Simon comes out, his dad jokes “Which one of your girlfriends turned you [gay]?” Nora immediately reacts, saying that the joke wasn’t funny, and his dad stops laughing. Insensitive jokes can sometimes be an uncomfortable place for newly out queer people like Simon to correct others, and while he doesn’t want to seem overly stingy, it does make him visibly uncomfortable to hear. His sister is acutely aware of this and reacts accordingly, helping his dad to learn and for Simon to feel more comfortable.
Simon’s dad also learns to change his rhetoric later in the movie. After his insensitive joke, he tries again, this time opening with “How long have you known?” He underscores an important distinction: people are born queer, not turned queer.
Queer people have consumed and enjoyed straight media for so long, it seems to be no question that it can go the other way, too. Allies also receive the bonus of informative scenes showing just how queer people hope they react around the topic of their sexuality.
These lessons, intertwined with the playful tone of the movie, opens the gates to educate younger audiences and show that LGBTQ+ stories aren’t all R rated. They don’t need to be shielded from children; there are R and PG LGBTQ+ stories just like there are R and PG non-LGBTQ+ stories.
Simon does have a relatively liberal, affluent family, and relatively liberal, affluent friends, but a lot of his experiences growing up gay in a first world country do represent many peoples’ experiences. Queer people can watch this movie with their friends and point to specific scenes and say “Remember this scene? This is exactly how I feel about this” or “This is exactly what I went through.”
To the allies: watch this movie to learn and to empathize. To the members of the LGBTQ+ community: watch this movie to feel seen and to see a fully happy queer love story end in victory.
From a cinematic standpoint, “Love, Simon” is a standard, feel-good coming-of-age movie that subverts its genre by centering on a gay youth. It’s an important, groundbreaking step for representation that’s easygoing and uplifting. Sure, it suffers the common ailments that plague most teenage rom-coms: predictability and troped or undeveloped supporting characters, but it’s worth watching.
Despite some flawed aspects, the movie executes its pleasant plot entertainingly enough to be a good watch. If you’re looking for something light, happy and heartfelt, watch it.
But at its worst, “Love, Simon” feels like a saccharine, idealistic diorama of the High School ExperienceTM, and certain scenes seem to go through scripted motions — a Halloween house party in the suburbs, a painful confession at the Homecoming game, a flashy performance of the musical “Cabaret.”
The plot falls into a rhythm, and often events are motivated by explicit, tell-tale character desires — a boy wants a pretty girl, a boy can’t get the pretty girl, Simon’s confused about his pen (email) pal and guesses who it is, rinse and repeat.
As the titular character, Simon gets the most screen time. He is the most fallible character; he is the most like a person. Robinson, who deftly plays Simon, is at turns jubilant, awkward, pensive, furious. Simon is well-rounded — he makes mistakes, and he learns from them. Robinson’s “Mean Girls”-style voiceovers also helps viewers better understand his thoughts and motivations, and these intrinsic glances help give Simon a voice. (One of Berlanti’s more subtle touches is Simon’s connection with music — he has a vinyl record player, a Hamilton playbill, nice headphones — but other characters fail to have such nuances.)
Most supporting characters seem to exist only to further Simon’s own character arc, and consequently, fail to offer insightful glimpses and different perspectives into Simon’s world. A particularly egregious example of the shallowness of some characters is the swift, clean, melodramatic dip of Simon’s closest friend group from loving to angry to forgiving back to loving, following Simon’s outing. “Lady Bird” and “Moonlight” are two recent movies with excellent supporting characters who enrich and deepen the world’s texture .
Out of all non-Simon characters, Martin, a dweeby, romantic loner who winds up outing Simon, is perhaps the most interesting. He’s the second most fallible character, and it’s unclear whether he’s supposed to elicit sympathy from the audience for his cruel actions. Unfortunately, he practically disappears from the plot in the third act once he’s fulfilled his main function and outed Simon, and Berlanti doesn’t seem to offer a strong reason for the caricature.
And then there’s Blue. Blue’s lack of characterization makes the grand reveal feel sort of like a deus ex machina — a plot resolution rains down from above and we see little of Blue’s own journey in making it to the film’s climax. Keiynan Lonsdale, who plays Bram and has collaborated with Berlanti before on “The Flash” and “Legends of Tomorrow,” is charming and subtle enough to make the scene magical, but something seems a little off, even if we can’t identify it.
At its best though, “Love, Simon” is touching, endearingly funny and powerful.
When Simon comes out to Abby in his parked car, there’s a palpable hope and hesitation in his eyes. When Simon’s middle school girlfriend asks if he dated her because she looked like a guy, he responds, “No, I actually broke up with you because you don’t look like a guy.” When Ethan, the school’s token gay student, confesses that his deeply religious family has not accepted him, our relatively one-dimensional image of him is made more complex. The deft execution of these heartfelt scenes makes it worthwhile to watch the movie — even with its problems — because it does what every teen movie should do: evince sentiment and emotion.
For the most part, the visuals, music and plot recall every single other teen romance depicted in film, ever — upper-class suburbs with pastel houses and Pinterest-worthy bedrooms, loving family members and quirky friends and public high school, oh my. The intentional sterility of it all makes “Love, Simon” more palatable and universal than other movies that touch on other aspects of LGBTQ+ identity (read: Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, etc.).
All told, “Love, Simon” is a movie worth watching. If not for the notable emphasis on the LGBTQ+ experience, then at least for the tingly-inside comfort of a teenage romance gone right. It’s not a film without issues, but in its very conception as a big-budget, major production featuring a gay youth, “Love, Simon” is an important first step in paving the way for more LGBTQ+ films in the future.