Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Love, Simon (2018) dir. Greg Berlanti

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Being a movie spectator allows us to partake in roles we wouldn’t otherwise consider, or even, perhaps, be able to experience. You could be a superhero, a hard-boiled detective, a brave princess, or a final girl. As a gay kid growing up in the suburbs, still trying to figure out his sexual identity, there weren’t many real-world examples, or even movies– let alone big studio movies– that allowed spaces for me to explore queer love and romance. So, in their place, I spectated, slipping into the roles of princesses, femmes fatales, and harried business women. I was especially drawn to rom-coms, perhaps because of their formulaic structure and penchant for leading characters that were quirky outsiders or non-traditional femme presences. They opened up a world in which I could play the role of the leading lady swept off her feet by the leading manIn and Out, The Birdcage, and My Best Friend’s Wedding being the rare studio exceptions in which I wasn’t simply spectator playing a role, but also active participant experiencing a fractal version of my identity. These, too, played an integral part in my exploration.

Rom-coms have generally been derided in traditional film circles, seen as ridiculous and perfunctory. This fact should come as no surprise for a genre whose box office is usually dominated by women. Rom-coms are rarely afforded the honor of being “prestigious,” and if they are, they’re spoken of as if they are somehow disconnected from the genre they hold–e.g., Annie Hall, or even Gone Girl and Phantom Thread. These films were from directors seen as “masculine” auteurs, a moniker which is typically withheld from women directors or filmmakers who direct their movies toward an audience of women and gay guys. Fortunately, the rom-com, like horror (another derided genre), is having a resurgence, thanks to saviors such as Gillian Robespierre with Obvious Child, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon with The Big Sick, and now Greg Berlanti with Love, Simon. All three of these movies, each stellar and prestigious in their own distinct way, lean into their rom-com trappings, tropes, and cliches in order to say something deeper to an audience well versed in the genre’s language.

This is, of course, what great “genre” pictures are supposed to do, from horror to romantic comedy.

Love, Simon is an adaption of the young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli. The movie is directed by Greg Berlanti, known for Dawson’s Creek, the DC comics television shows, and Everwood, a personal favorite from my childhood (which incidentally, also featured a ferris wheel). Simon Spier is a gay teenager who is not out to his family, friends, or the world at large. When another closeted student posts on the school’s anonymous gossip blog, Simon reaches out under a pseudonym via email. Their romance blossoms, and the movie follows Simon attempting to figure out who this mysterious “Blue” is. Unfortunately, when someone steals Simon’s emails, he must resort to lies and convoluted schemes in order to protect himself and Blue.

Tucked beneath its John Hughes sheen and Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail meets Never Been Kissed storyline, Love, Simon is just as much about what it means to live as a gay kid in a straight world as it is about whether or not our leading man will end up with our other leading man. The movie takes delicate care to show the subtle ways heteronormativity is taken for granted, and how this unintentionally affects a queer kid exploring his identity. In one scene, Simon watches as his parents kiss beneath the mistletoe, loving each other so intimately and publicly. The scene transitions into a fantasy sequence in which Simon imagines kissing the mysterious Blue underneath mistletoe.

Even in the confines of his familial household, Simon realizes that his queer identity is not centered, both because he is in the closet and because we rarely afford anyone, let alone youth, the freedom to explore their sexual identities. Coming out is seen as the defining moment in queer people’s lives, when really coming out is rarely one specific instance, but, in fact, a fluid course of learning about and understanding oneself, and then relaying that back to the world. Love, Simon, in a way, sort of subverts our expectations of the coming out story; for a movie marketed around Simon coming out, it isn’t necessarily the movie’s primary focus. It isn’t even really that climactic in the movie, less a grand moment, than a series of moments. It is realistically shown as process instead of a singular dramatic event. In fact, refreshingly, Simon’s coming out runs background to the movie’s rom-com leanings and inherent queerness.

This is radical, in that a gay kid’s coming out or “struggle with his identity” isn’t the center focus of his story–for Simon, thanks to a particular Daniel Radcliffe poster, is confident that he is gay. Instead, the center focus of Simon’s story becomes his romantic fulfillment, about his and Blue’s coming together.

The story is made more real because of the exceptional acting from Love, Simon‘s cast of supporting characters. Alexandra Shipp plays Simon’s new friend, a girl struggling with her familial history. Natasha Rothwell plays the high school’s drama teacher, who unquestionably and unerringly supports her queer students. Jennifer Garner, playing Simon’s mom, delivers a Call Me By Your Name-esque speech and, in turn, says something about being a witness to your child. Clarke Moore, the movie’s breakout, bar none, plays the school’s resident gay kid, Ethan. As a black gay teen, Ethan’s storyline and casting (and hair!) is phenomenal, and the story he tells, of his mother’s casual lies to “protect” his older, religious grandparents, may be familiar to spectators, but the story of the gay kid who is so confidently out since sophomore year is one we rarely see, let alone see the nuances of.

Whether it’s through introverted moodiness (in the case of Simon) or quick, acidic barbs (in the case of Ethan), the way queer youth, especially out queer youth, have to steel themselves runs undercurrent throughout the movie. It shows the ways in which queer kids are affected, however consciously or unconsciously, by growing up in a heteronormative world and having to struggle silently and alone with an all-encompassing secret.

Love, Simon, perhaps because of timing more than anything, seems to be in conversation with the Queer Eye reboot. Perhaps it’s because, with both, there is a conversation of whether these products are “necessary” in an age with gay marriage, Moonlight’s Oscar win, increased trans visibility, and queer kids “better off” than those who came of age in the decades before them. The Queer Eye episode that cemented its modern necessity involved a gay black man struggling to come out to his stepmother and regretting the fact that he could never come out to his deceased father. The Fab Five weren’t sent in to makeover a straight man and soften his edges for a current or prospective female partner, but were instead there to be a support system for another queer person who shares their identity, even if their specific life experiences might only reflect each other emotionally and not exactly. In a way, the whole series seems to be about this. It is not a makeover show solely, but a light in the darkness for queer folk struggling alone, on the edge.

Love, Simon, although certainly in a more chaste way, accomplishes this same feat, showing a story with nuances not seen on quite this large of a distribution before, directed squarely at an audience rarely marketed to: queer youth. And even if, as many are arguing, closeted kids don’t check out this movie in theaters, I can guarantee, when it hits streaming, that a large population of closeted folk, youth and adult, will watch this movie in secret, much in the same way I saw many a rom-com and episodes of Queer as Folk.

Why would we fault them if Love, Simon isn’t a box-office hit? Like Simon, their exploration and coming out should be something accomplished securely on their own terms. 

Admittedly, like most movies, Love, Simon has its stumbles. It is perhaps merely political in content, with little strong progressive conversation in practice: teenage conversations of sex are focused on the heterosexual, and we are constantly reminded how “normal” the gay, white, middle class Simon is when compared to other gay people, especially Ethan. An awful gay joke closes off the movie’s most jubilant, emotional scene. Similarly, Simon says to Ethan that queer kids weren’t bullied until he came out, which is not only a ridiculous statement to Ethan, but also to the audience,  since we saw Ethan get bullied. I simply can’t imagine Ethan not dressing down Simon for that ignorant comment. These are weird, slightly caustic moments in a movie mostly joyful and empathetic, which is why they stand out so firmly.

The overall mood of joy and empathy, and even kindness, centered around queer conversations does overpower these otherwise groan-worthy moments and make the movie so very charming and watchable. It remains a wonderful entry into the queer canon and a suberb queer entry into the rom-com genre, widening the lens of mainstream cinema to include queer stories and queer storytellers. And for those folks not quite ready to purchase a ticket, Love, Simon will be waiting. A movie for everyone that gives space to explore queer humor, queer sorrow, queer anger, and above all, queer love. Radical spaces, even now, even coated in a marketable sheen.

For that, Love, Simon is a necessity.

Love, Simon
2018
dir. Greg Berlanti
110 min.

Now playing everywhere (though, as always, the Hassle recommends the Somerville Theatre or another locally owned cinema).

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