I feel bad for kids today, as they really don’t have a John Hughes, a filmmaker who told thoughtful stories about teenagers that were smart and took their young characters seriously. If he were still around today, he might have made a movie like Love, Simon.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s award-winning YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Love, Simon tells the story of Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a high school senior who’s typical in practically every way except one: He’s a closeted gay kid. He hasn’t remained closeted out of any kind of familial or social oppression. In fact, his parents and friends are really swell and supportive. As Simon puts it in the film, with one year left of high school, he just wants to hold on to who he’s always been a little while longer.
That all changes when another closeted classmate posts a message on their high school’s blog. He refers to himself as simply “Blue.” Intrigued that there’s somebody with which he can have this shared experience, Simon begins an anonymous email correspondence with Blue. The two start to fall for each other through their email exchanges. Things are going well until Simon inadvertently leaves his Gmail account open on a school computer and annoying classmate Martin (Logan Miller) learns about Simon’s secret. Martin threatens to out Simon unless Simon helps Martin woo Abby (Alexandra Shipp, she was Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse), one of Simon’s friends. This causes Simon to lie to and manipulate his closest friends and also risk never finding out Blue’s actual identity.
I’ve read the novel, and the film version shares some of the same issues its source material also has. It’s pretty much revealed in the trailers, but I do want to offer up a spoiler warning moving ahead. Simon is eventually outed on the school blog, and his lies to his friends are exposed. Up until that point, both the film and book are pleasant enough but a bit meandering. Once Simon is outed, the story snaps very sharply into focus and the dramatic stakes immediately are raised. It’s suddenly about something. The relationships between the characters all become far more specific, and the actors get some great scenes to play. The second half of the movie is really good.
But one problem that bogs down the first half of the film is the Martin character. In the novel, I read him more as a socially stunted kid that makes some questionable choices. He’s almost an introvert. The book even raises the possibility that Martin might actually be Blue. In the film, Martin is beyond obnoxious. I hate to rip on young actors, because often a weak performance simply isn’t their fault or an indication they aren’t talented; this might be how director Greg Berlanti saw the character and guided the actor. But, good lord is Martin a braying, awful douchebag. Whenever he’s on screen, the movie comes to a grinding halt.
But Nick Robinson, who was so good in the criminally underseen Kings of Summer, is nicely understated as Simon. It’s a bit of a burden for an actor, effectively standing in for each gay high school kid in the world, but Robinson gives us a Simon people will easily be able to project themselves onto. He even remains sympathetic when he’s treating his friends in questionable ways. The film’s adult actors give him plenty of support. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are great as Simon’s parents. Each of them gets a nice, emotional scene affirming their son once he’s come out to them. It’s so refreshing to see families that like each other for a change. Following in the footsteps of Burt Hummel, these are characters demonstrating to parents how to handle this situation the right way. Tony Hale (so great in both Arrested Development and Veep) is very funny as the school principal who wants to be everybody’s pal, and Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell has a spectacular scene as the school drama teacher eviscerating a couple of bullies.
The novel was adapted by screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, and they’ve stayed mostly true to the book. Simon’s older sister who’s off at college has been written out and not really missed. They’ve also cleverly solved the problem inherent in transferring the “Who is Blue?” mystery to the screen by having different guys in the class handle the voice-over for Blue’s emails. It’s a nice touch.
It’s also impossible to discuss this film and not mention how socially significant it is. Like Black Panther last month (though not nearly as ambitious), Love, Simon is serving an audience that often isn’t represented onscreen. But there’s a lot more to it that just the representation. This is a mainstream movie produced by a major studio (20th Century Fox) that will play on 2400 North American screens. It’s going to be everywhere and benefit from a multi-million dollar marketing campaign. Yes, there have been gay coming-of-age films before. One of them was recently nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars; however, in this case, kids won’t have to track down the movie at an arthouse cinema. This will play in the suburbs. Love, Simon is also significant just for its uplifting tone. Gay artists often face a horror show when coming out and their subsequent films can be understandably pretty dour. Call Me by Your Name ends in heartbreak. Brokeback Mountain ends in death and heartbreak. For lack of a better word, Love, Simon is unabashedly happy by design and, therefore, almost revolutionary. Here ,the gay kid comes out, actually strengthens his relationships with his friends and family, and even gets the guy.
In '80s parlance, that’s pretty radical.