Mostly I just can’t believe a movie like Love, Simon exists. That it does makes my heart soar.
“I’m just like you,” says 17-year-old Simon Spier, narrating the opening moments of Love, Simon. He has perfect parents—so perfect they are played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel—in a perfect suburb. He has a small group of close friends, who thrive on gallons of iced coffee and inside jokes from a decade of shared history. Everyone around him seems to smile all the time.
“For the most part my life is totally normal,” he says. “Except I have one huge-ass secret.” Simon Spier is gay.
What Love, Simon does is extraordinary.
It’s a coming-of-age film in the classic sense, and will likely become a classic in its own right, based on the wondrous execution of its rarely-touched subject matter: a story that lends the humor, dignity, angst, and uber-heightened drama of the very best, most relatable high school dramedies to the experience of a gay teen. Think the charm of Ferris Bueller, the identity crisis of Cady Herron, the from-afar crush of Samantha Baker, and the big-swing grand gestures of a The Fault in Our Stars or Say Anything. Again, but gay!
Simon has the same big feelings and big heartbreak that average teenagers are both blessed and cursed to feel. But also, he doesn’t; his sexuality makes for a distinct experience. It’s an experience that young, questioning teens rarely—never, really—see reflected in such a major way. And it’s not just for gays: it’s a film with which universal audiences are expected to empathize.
Love, Simon is a little messy in the way that the high school movie canon typically is, but it’s also intoxicatingly cute. And its cuteness means something.
Simon, played by Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson, lives in one of those suburban utopias that only exist in movies. A blog on which students post gossip about their classmates rules the school. When one student posts an anonymous open letter saying that he is gay and closeted, the rumor mill tries to figure out his identity, but Simon sees it as an opportunity to share his secret. He creates a new email alias and reaches out to the poster, whose pseudonym is “Blue.” It’s a communication that begins as pen pals and then develops into something much more meaningful. Through their emails, Simon and Blue fall in love, despite not knowing each other’s real identities.
The email correspondence is a clever narrative tool for a story like this, allowing the film to explore the emotional nuance of a teenager’s feelings about his sexuality with more depth than normal dialogue would. We’re given access to Simon’s inner monologue, as he grapples in his emails to Blue with the idea of coming out.
His mother and father are liberal and accepting. He knows they likely would embrace him. Yet there are little moments—dad makes a joke about masturbating to Gigi Hadid, or mocks the new Bachelor for being “clearly gay”—that, while hardly homophobic, are microaggressions that build up into a mountain too daunting for a closeted teen to emotionally scale. Simon just wants more time with things being the same before taking the step that will suddenly make everything different. This isn’t everyone’s coming-out experience by any means, but it’s one that is deeply relatable, at the very least to me.
That’s one of the more fascinating aspects of a film like this: it both normalizes a teenager’s gayness, but recognizes the monumental nature of coming out—by any measure difficult ideas to have in conversation with each other, but which is done delicately here. That’s owed to having Greg Berlanti, the force behind some of television’s most earnest and affecting family dramas (Everwood, Brothers & Sisters), as well as the suite of slick teenage comic book series (The Flash, Supergirl, Riverdale), at the helm. He gets spectacle. He gets big emotion. More crucially, he gets teenagers.
There’s been this rampant, unpleasant idea that’s managed to spread like weeds: that today’s teens are dormant, ambivalent drones. Pundits argue that they sleepwalk through life with their eyes glued to their screens and blind to the world around them, but we’d venture that they’ve never been more awake, more vibrant, or more alive. They are a formidable generation—as we’ve seen time and again in the news these recent weeks—and Love, Simon captures that dynamism.
Berlanti has his finger on that pulse, capturing not only how teenagers behave, but also feel. A big second-act twist that finds Simon cruelly outed shoots off a confetti cannon of different emotions and ideas, and it takes someone as nimble as Berlanti to gather them all in a way that doesn’t leave a mess.
This is, of course, the Age of the Think Piece and the policing of responsible LGBTQ storytelling, and so expect there to be warranted questioning about the film’s inherent exploitation of a coming-out narrative, or even fetishizing of the journey for entertainment. The questioning, like all things in the queer space and especially in popular culture, is vital. It’s not even condemning; it’s continuing the conversation.
The film is hardly perfect. Too many of its most dramatic scenes are diffused with tension-breaking comedy before we’re through with our emotional connection to what’s going on. At other times, what we call cute, others might call cheesy and emotionally hollow.
Nick Robinson, while certainly charming, is sort of purposefully a blank slate. It certainly serves well the idea that a gay teen can often be a normal, average guy, but there will likely be those who are frustrated by the fact that he isn’t coded gay really at all. He’s never at risk of setting off anyone’s gaydar gun—heck, he’s even the worst dancer in his school’s (hilarious) production of Cabaret. While it’s refreshing that Simon isn’t painted in the kinds of caricature or stereotypes we’re used to seeing on gay teens in pop culture, a little flamboyance wouldn’t hurt.
There will be nits that are picked at, and we’d be surprised if the hot-take vultures leave anything but a carcass where this film once was. (We gays will never be satisfied.) But speaking from a purely personal space, we’re gobsmacked that these are conversations we’re having at all.
It’s a film that we swooned and winced and cringed and grinned through, the journey the best coming-of-age movies take their audiences on. Jennifer Garner gives a speech to Simon after he comes out that is so genuine and beautifully delivered, on-the-nose to what every gay person wants to hear from a parent, that my heart very nearly exploded. Similarly, a barn-burner of a monologue about tolerance delivered by supporting-cast MVP Natasha Rothwell, who plays the drama teacher, got an ovation from the theater at our screening.
In fact, watching the film with an audience is an experience we won’t soon forget: people applauding, cheering, squealing, and audibly rooting for Simon, as if they were at a summer blockbuster or a superhero flick. It was wild. We keep saying this, but we really couldn’t believe it. We’re so glad this film was made that we wonder if that enthusiasm maybe colors our judgment of it, that we’re grading it on a curve. But we also, frankly, don’t care.
Love, Simon is not an arthouse film that has to be sought out, or Queer as Folk episodes you have to pirate online, giving your parents’ desktop computer a ghastly virus. Love, Simon is a wide-release, mainstream movie marketed directly to the 13 Reasons Why, John Green generation, with the expectation that the film, its stars, and its story will be just as big a phenomenon.
It’s not the first—or the most nuanced—coming-of-age-by-coming-out story we’ve had in pop culture. In fact, it might be one of the most well-trodden story arcs when it comes to high school TV shows in recent years. But there’s something about Love, Simon that feels like a bona fide event. Finally.