cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Tony Hale, Natasha Rothwell
screenplay: Elizabeth Berger, Isaac Aptaker
director: Greg Berlanti
verdict: Consume in Moderation
Conventional wisdom on how to make history usually focuses on some kind of proud, radical otherness. Going against the grain. Taking the road less traveled. Well-behaved women need not apply. That kind of thing. Except—except!—in the case of studio movies. In that hyper-cautious and overly test-marketed world, a film as tame, toothless, and trite as Love, Simon—the third directorial feature from TV super-producer Greg Berlanti—qualifies as historic in the year of our lord 2018. Why is it historic? Because it’s the first gay teen romance ever released by a major studio (20th Century Fox). And to be allowed to pull off that feat, it must adhere to the most generic possible teen-movie blueprint while telling its story. To make history, Love, Simon has to follow the rules.
Set in an Anytown, USA suburb purportedly outside of Atlanta (the lone potentially identifying landmark is a Waffle House), it’s the story of Simon (Nick Robinson, Jurassic World), a high school senior with a life that, by his own admission, is pretty great. His parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, the latter of whom was presumably cast to ensure an afterlife of Love, Simon daddy-son slash fic) are high school sweethearts still madly in love. He loves his precocious little sister (Talitha Bateman). He’s got a solid group of best friends: pining Leah (Katherine Langford, best-known as poor Hannah Baker from 13 Reasons Why), romantically frustrated Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and a more recent addition, the vivacious Abby (Alexandra Shipp, best-known from Lifetime’s unauthorized Aaliyah movie…by me).
There’s just one problem: Simon is also gay. Well, that’s not the problem. The problem is that Simon is very much in the closet. So how does his sexuality manifest itself? In the sanitized screenplay from This Is Us writing partners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (adapting Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda), it’s limited to a single instance in the film’s opening sequence of wistfully leering at and then awkwardly greeting a construction worker across the street from his house. After that opening salvo, he never checks out another guy. There are no allusions to masturbation, other than a misguided joke from his dad (more on that later). Despite the rampant technological communication in the story, Simon never looks at porn or, even more puzzlingly once his quest begins, downloads any gay apps to see what gays are nearby. For most intents and purposes, Simon is asexual.
But then, the inciting incident: a fellow student at Simon’s high school leaves an anonymous post on their school blog LET ME BACK UP. So there’s this unauthorized school gossip blog where any rando can post shit about themselves or others. Is this a thing that exists in 2018? Have blogs miraculously persevered and found traction with today’s youth, despite their glaring inability to adorn their users with bunny ears? Or is it ironic, like the resurgence of cassette tapes? Anyway, an anonymous user creates a post saying that he’s gay but in the closet. Ring the alarm! This is evidently SO JUICY that the entire school is engulfed with theories; Leah actually calls—NOT TEXTS—Simon to ask if he’s seen it. Now listen, I haven’t been a high school student for 18 years (why yes that does make me twice the age of these characters and I do not appreciate you bringing that up), but I would be very surprised if someone being gay in high school makes this big of a splash in 2018. Maybe if Love, Simon had placed its characters in, say, the deep south, this would make sense. But it doesn’t.
Simon hurtles to his bedroom, throws on a Kinks record (ugh), and obsessively reads and re-reads this post. For whatever reason, this post is the catalyst for Simon to begin inching out of the closet. It includes an anonymous Gmail address, so Simon tremulously sets up one of his own and emails the author to say that he’s facing the same circumstance. He signs it “Jacques” (ugh), and the replies are signed “Blue.” Soon, Simon and Blue have struck up a warm and occasionally flirtatious e-correspondence, with Simon giddily projecting every ounce of his budding romantic ideals onto an anonymous email address linked to what’s essentially one of those passive, maddening “Someone ask me about my problem!” Facebook posts we all hate.
But then: conflict! Simon is co-starring in his school’s musical production of Cabaret, which just feels reckless if he wants to stay closeted so badly; was his Erika Jayne lip-sync rejected from the talent show? Also, do high schools do Cabaret? Isn’t it a little adult? In this day and age, it’s jarring to see a pack of white teenagers casually wearing swastika armbands while being hectored by their exasperated black drama teacher, Ms. Albright (the magnificent Natasha Rothwell of Insecure, who steals every scene she’s in). The role of the emcee is played by Martin (Logan Miller), a grating, gregarious schlub who has a major crush on Simon’s friend Abby, who’s playing Sally Bowles. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: never trust a straight man in theater. (I’m looking at you, Darren Criss.)
This is all perfectly harmless until Simon accidentally leaves his secret Gmail account open on a school computer just before Martin uses it. And so begins the weakest and least convincing element of the film plot-wise: Martin approaches Simon during rehearsals and, after saying that he has a gay brother, tells him that he’s taken screenshots of every email between Simon and Blue. Why? Because he plans to blackmail Simon into setting him up with Abby, despite her being very obviously out of his league. If Simon fails, Martin will post all the screenshots on that infernal school blog and tell everyone that Simon is Jacques. Sorry, but this is just shaky ground. If Martin has an out gay brother whose own coming-out he presumably witnessed, it’s hard to believe that he would do something so shockingly cruel to another gay person just to land a date; as played in an ebullient breakout performance by Miller (who himself played a gay teen in the haunting indie Take Me to the River), it’s even harder to believe this character is capable of these actions. But the story needs conflict, so here we are!
Petrified of being found out and scaring off his DL pal Blue, Simon sets off attempting to discourage the natural chemistry between Abby and Nick, instead finding ham-fisted ways to push Abby and Martin together. This involves telling Nick a single lie about Abby being hung up on an older boyfriend, and finding roughly three moments to play Cyrano-at-gunpoint for Abby and Martin. Since he’s already in matchmaker mode, Simon also sets up Nick and Leah, just so every pot has a lid. Meanwhile, Simon’s emails with Blue continue to flourish and intensify, as he begins to mentally assemble a lineup of potential suspects. (Cue a red-herring appearance by yet another 13 Reasons Why cast member, Miles Heizer, whose Alex Standall was one of those implicated in Hannah Baker’s suicide; Love, Simon gingerly keeps Heizer and Langford apart.)
But just as Abby is starting to warm to Martin, he jumps the gun and makes an extremely outlandish and over-the-top declaration of love to her, interrupting the national anthem at a football game to grab the mic and publicly ask Abby out in front of everyone. She politely declines. Dejected, Martin slinks off the field and the grid for a few days, despite Simon’s frantic attempts to get ahold of him and defuse the situation, i.e. make sure he isn’t planning to post his emails. (But His Emails would’ve been a lovely alternate title for this movie.) Sadly, on Christmas Eve, that’s exactly what Martin does: he anonymously posts every single email on that school blog (damn you technology!) and explicitly identifies Simon as Jacques.
Simon begins to understandably spiral, yelling at his sweet sister when she comes to his room to say she’d seen the post. Texts from his friends begin pouring in, but Simon can’t bring himself to face their questions, so he likewise goes off the grid for the remainder of holiday break. The next morning, he comes out to his parents while the family is opening Christmas presents. It’s the gift of hijacking a family holiday! Mom takes it well, while Dad is embarrassed to not have known such a huge thing about his only son for so long. (This will lend itself well to the slash fic). Still, all in all, everything is fine—until Blue declares that he can’t continue their correspondence any further due to fear of being outed, then permanently blocks Simon’s Jacques email address. Granted, Simon could just start emailing him from his own non-anonymous email address, but heartache clouds the mind.
And then—AND THEN!—on the first day back at school after break, Simon goes to pick up his best friends as usual, only to drive right into a Muriel’s Wedding-style group de-friending. Nick and Abby tell him that they found out over break about Simon’s lie about Abby having a boyfriend. “WHY DID YOU TRY TO KEEP US APART?” they rage at this devastated shell of a boy, as though he’d slaughtered their families. Simon explains the Martin blackmail situation, but this somehow only serves to enrage Abby more, despite the fact that Simon has objectively had it the worst of any of them in the last two weeks. Leah lurches forward to confront Simon about setting her up with Nick; Simon genuinely thought that Leah had feelings for Nick based on a lengthy monologue she’d performed in his bedroom a few weeks prior, but what Simon somehow hasn’t figured out is that her monologue was, of course, about him.
And so, because the story demands that Simon be isolated from his friends at his worst moment, these are the (less than 13) reasons why we’re meant to believe that his three BFFs utterly abandon him just days after one of the most traumatic and violating incidents a young queer person can experience: because of Simon’s (completely valid) fears of being outed, Abby and Nick missed out on a few weeks where they could have been boning; Abby had to hang out with Martin a few more times than she would have organically; and Leah went on a date with Nick when she’d have rather gone on a date with Simon. THESE ARE NOT GOOD REASONS TO ABANDON SOMEONE AT THE LOWEST POINT IN THEIR LIFE. And yet, everyone is furious. Even when Simon is loudly mocked in the school cafeteria during his Cady Heron lunch-exile period by the school’s only two homophobic bullies (and they’re really more nonviolent pranksters), they just kinda watch it happen with only a flicker of dismay. As with our country’s elections, culture, and so much more, it once again falls to a black woman to save the day, as good ol’ Ms. Albright comes barreling in for the bully-bashing of a lifetime. (Again: all hail Natasha Rothwell.)
Anyway, eventually Simon decides to seize the narrative and make a “Yep, I’m gay!” post on the school blog, publicly owning all that has occurred and inviting Blue, whoever he may be, to meet him at the fairgrounds at a certain date and time blah blah blah. On the opening night of Cabaret, Simon’s friends finally decide they’ve forgiven him now thanks to his post, but to these friends I say GO FUCK YOURSELF YOU SHITTY SELFISH MONSTERS, YOU SHOULD ALL BE SENTENCED TO FRIEND JAIL OR AT THE VERY LEAST TAKE A COURT-ORDERED COURSE ON SENSITIVITY AND PROPORTIONATE RESPONSES TO MILD BETRAYAL. Then they all go to the fairground together and the guy shows up and it’s one of the guys he thought it was but not Alex Standall and the whole school cheers them on as they mash their faces together on a Ferris wheel THE END.
So, okay. You might be wondering, “Is this bitter queen gonna say anything nice about this movie?” You see me, so yes, I will. Overall, Love, Simon is a perfectly pleasant viewing experience, capably acted and punctuated with gentle humor. It falls somewhere between the John Hughes canon and The Perks of Being a Wallflower on the humor/earnestness teen movie continuum, although it lacks the buoyant charms of the former and the wrenching emotional edge of the latter. One subject it handles deftly is the inhibiting nature of heteronormative language. As the film begins, we see Simon’s father constantly making remarks that imply Simon is straight; the film’s one masturbation reference is when Duhamel shows up abruptly in Simon’s bedroom (slash fic alert!) and jokes that he didn’t mean to interrupt Simon jerking off to hot chicks. There’s talk about when he’s gonna get a girlfriend, there’s “Did you get some girl pregnant?” jokes. And there’s also some casual homophobia, such as describing a gay guy on TV as “fruity.”
Simon’s dad means well and wasn’t intentionally hurting his son’s feelings, but because his words consistently established that he expected Simon to be straight, it caused him to further retreat into the closet and be even more fearful about coming out. This is a very real thing, and Love, Simon illustrates it with a light but impactful touch. There’s also a cute montage that imagines if straight teens had to come out to their parents, as well as a fantasy dance sequence (set to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”) that imagines Simon living with his gayness anxiety-free once he gets to college; if there was any doubt about Nick Robinson’s real-life orientation, his stiff attempts at choreo here will put them to rest.
One other thing the film nails is the endless is-he-or-isn’t-he guessing game that is young gay life. Once Simon first starts emailing with Blue, he begins to wonder if every guy who makes eye contact with him is gay, from Alex Standall to an ancillary member of his friend group (Keiynan Lonsdale, who came out during the shooting of the movie) to a Waffle House waiter (American Crime‘s Joey Pollari, who came out while doing press for the movie; Greg Berlanti must be drowning in toaster ovens). One by one, they dash his hopes by demonstrating their heterosexuality, an experience that will never be captured better than on the My So-Called Life episode where Ricky falls for the cute artsy guy who draws on people’s sneakers but who winds up having the hots for Rayanne. You can safely skip this movie altogether and just watch that episode; it’s more emotionally compelling, more inclusive, and has a better dance number.
Which leads me to the most damning factor about Love, Simon and its historic value: it shows just how truly behind major film studios are compared to TV shows—and I’m not even talking about cable. My So-Called Life aired during the family hour on ABC nearly 25 years ago. Ellen and Will & Grace, though not about gay youth, came shortly thereafter on ABC and NBC, respectively. Glee, with its diverse array of gay and trans teens, premiered on FOX in 2009. And yet, nine years later, Love, Simon still gets to make history by mere virtue of its distribution model and the rock-bottom inclusion standards of studio filmmaking, offering a polished, exceedingly vanilla variation on the legions of low-budget gay coming-of-age movies the queer community has had to watch at LGBT film festivals for decades (as Berlanti knows, having cut his teeth directing The Broken Hearts Club).
Of course, it makes sense that the first steps toward progressiveness from the establishment would play it as safe as possible, and you can’t get much safer than Nick Robinson. A pouty, lily-white prettyboy with muted mannerisms, a deep voice, and a limitless supply of shearling jackets to wear over hoodies, Robinson is no one’s idea of threatening; he’s as straight-passing as they come, as are each of the guys he develops crushes on. But here’s the punchline: THERE HAS LITERALLY BEEN ANOTHER OPENLY GAY KID AT SIMON’S SCHOOL THIS ENTIRE TIME. His name is Ethan (Clark Moore), and he’s an unapologetically femme black teen who enjoys a downright collegial give-and-take banter with the aforementioned bullies. Simon knows about Ethan; everyone does. It’s not a shocking last-minute Keyser Sö-gay reveal. And yet, even after Simon embarks on his desperate quest to unmask Blue, never does he consider talking to Ethan, nor does the film even for a second consider Ethan as a potential love interest for Simon.
THIS. IS. INSULTING. Because Ethan is femme and fashion-flamboyant, we’re meant to understand that not only is he not a viable romantic or sexual option for Simon, but that he’s also relegated to play the role of tart-tongued eunuch—until, of course, after Simon is outed, at which point Ethan graciously takes a break from keeping the bullies at bay to offer our gorgeous, brooding white hero some words of solace. Moments later, the principal (Tony Hale) assumes that Simon and Ethan are a couple simply because they’re both gay. And while we laugh at the principal’s ignorance in this assumption, it also feels like we’re meant to laugh at the evidently preposterous idea that Simon and Ethan could be a couple. Because like many immature gay men, Simon is resolutely #masc4masc, while Ethan is left to play the same quippy de-sexed sidekick role that queer femme POC have had to play for far too long.
So, kudos to 20th Century Fox for finally using their distribution resources to tell the story of someone like Simon, despite the fact that the Simons of the world have had their stories told to death in TV shows and indie films for longer than any of the young actors in this film have been alive. But frankly, now that we have Love, Simon, we don’t need any more stories about Simon. Literally, not a single one more. What we need are major-studio stories about the Ethans, and we needed them yesterday.