When I included Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon, an adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s novel “Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” in my Most Anticipated Movies of 2018 list, I asked a question with an admittedly obvious answer, though it begs bringing up once more: how on Earth did it take this long for a major studio to release a film about a gay teen romance? Though the reason why – a history of culturally-engrained homophobic attitudes – may not be a frequent focus in the film, unlike most other studio-financed productions about homosexuality, it doesn’t take long for Berlanti’s film to briefly answer why this has been a landmark moment in the overlong making, and why it could have only existed now.
There are two minor characters in the film who embody the archaic reasoning passed on from generations past, and they are infrequently depicted roaming around the fictional Creekwood High School grounds homophobically abusing another out-and-proud character, Ethan. While these characters and this sort of religiously-justified harassing and slur-hurling can be found in just about any other LGBT+ film, what’s rather enlightening is that there are no other characters, major or minor, who share in their backward sentiment. They are presumably alone in their thinking, with the rest of the student populace more accepting and tolerant. It’s difficult to recall another feature film, even in recent memory, in which these two characters have represented the minority of public opinion regarding homosexuality rather than the majority, which is not only unprecedented, but also based in sobering truth.
According to the Pew Research Center, same-sex marriage, for instance, didn’t start experiencing a more favorable pro-anti ratio until 2011, and since then, the percentage of folks favoring same-sex marriage has increased from 46% to 62% in 2017 – given the age group depicted in this movie, 74% of millennials now favor it as opposed to 61% in 2011. This sort of environment in which homosexuality is accepted by most people as normative hasn’t existed until recently, and while Love, Simon never really visibly celebrates society’s increasing tolerance, it doesn’t forget the behaviors that still linger and which so many have had to fight against, either. Perhaps appropriately, all it’s focused on is visualizing a more inclusive love story with all of the familiar John Hughes-ian high school coming-of-age movie beats to implicitly, structurally assert the now-accepted truth that those who identify as LGBT+ are just like the rest of us.
Similar to what The Big Sick did for Middle Eastern cultures amidst growing Islamophobia, Love, Simon uses a tried and true, interchangeable narrative format as a means of more easily sliding into the company of celebrated heterosexual romances. Aside from certain plot points and themes solely inherent to the LGBT+ experience heterosexual viewers could only empathize with rather than fully comprehend, you could replace the gay romance plot with a straight one and the end result wouldn’t be entirely different. Structurally as well as tonally, Love, Simon is no different from products like The Edge of Seventeen or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but then again, why wouldn’t it be the case that such was purely intentional? We respond favorably to specific emotional ebbs and flows in cinematic storytelling, and the aforementioned films in addition to much of Hughes’s catalogue tap into that nostalgic or optimistic response, depending on your age, without seeming cynical.
Berlanti’s film is deliberately calculated as a studio effort to elicit this sort of emotional engagement – ‘80s-inspired synth soundtracks and all – and even though it couldn’t be more transparent in that regard, it doesn’t mean its execution is any less powerful. The cast is admirably game, the film itself is charming in its balance of humor, upbeat nostalgia and personal turmoil and Berlanti treats the process and nuances of coming out with affecting honesty – all of which may be baseline expectations for a film such as this, but it’s no less important that the cast and crew hit their respective marks. This movie didn’t need to go above and beyond to adequately stand as a vital story for and cherish-able by anyone who’s felt the same anxiety as Simon, and thanks to the sensitivity and intelligence practiced by its cast and crew, it comfortably thrives within its self-imposed limits.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t anything else meaningful to extract from its story, however, as the plot is a consistent reminder of an often unspoken of element in coming of age stories: how often we get stuck in our own heads playing out fantasies we desperately want to be reality. Frequently, Nick Robinson’s Simon constructs possible identities of his anonymous pen pal out of seemingly insignificant details and is often left disappointed and deflated when reality comes around to nip such innocent wishing in the bud. Hopeful protagonists being brought back to Earth is the bread and butter of coming of age stories expressing the inevitable disconnect between youthful optimism and realism, but not so often is it made an integral component of any given film’s storytelling patterns.
Additionally, it’s use here is arguably more effective than in other films given the context of coming out. The movie’s use of space, staging and John Guleserian’s framing often shows Simon as separate or somehow disconnected from his family, friends or peers, and while these moments do evoke accurate, more broadly relatable feelings of loneliness and isolation first and foremost, they are enhanced by their connection to Simon’s uncertainty over the right time to come out. He’s at a point where he knows who he is and is comfortable with it, but in waiting for the perfect opportunity, finds himself on the outside of reality. In fact, it’s more intriguing watching Simon’s arc be about realizing there is no ideal moment to reveal one’s identity; life is too messy for that, but that doesn’t mean dreaming of a better future is rendered pointless – perhaps, personally, the most positive take-away signifying Love, Simon’s profound importance in the coming of age landscape.
Though, to be completely honest, it feels insufficient using a medium like this to measure and define what this film’s significance actually resembles. Its genuinely heartfelt nature is inspiring enough to wonder who gives a damn whether or not it’s an extraordinary meditation on identity or an artful example of cinematic form. So what if it isn’t; it can still be just as influential as your Moonlight’s and Call Me By Your Name’s. For what it’s worth, it’s also just as destined for genre hallmark status, and fits in nicely with you’re The Edge of Seventeen’s and The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s. You can’t quantify that sort of achievement; you can only celebrate it.