Love, Simon (2018)

8 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Love, Simon” is an important step for a mainstream comedy-drama to take: about the struggles of a closeted gay high-school teenager. We’ve seen quite a few indie films about the subject, and there were also some mainstream high-school dramedies with LGBT supporting characters (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Power Rangers”). But “Love, Simon,” based on Becky Albertalli’s YA novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” is the first wide-theatrical-release teenage comedy that focuses on what a homosexual teen goes through when he considers coming out to his loved ones.

Sexual orientation aside, this character finds love in unexpected places, which is generally what happens in conventional teen films. But like other conventional teen films, “Love, Simon” has a lighthearted tone. It plays the material safe with a cheerful, uplifting feel. At first, I didn’t know how to feel about it, now that I know how difficult it must be for real-life closeted teens to keep their true selves hidden out of fear of being isolated or worse. “Love, Simon” doesn’t ignore how hard it is for a gay kid to come out, but it doesn’t entirely play for realism either. But the more I thought about other films that cover teenage struggles (“Juno” with teenage pregnancy, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with mental disorders, “The Fault in Our Stars” with cancer, etc.), I realized those films played it more or less safe with those real issues too. And “Love, Simon” is charming and likable for the same reasons the other films are charming and likable.

(Besides, there’s a film coming out this fall, called “Boy Erased,” that’s probably going to deal with darker, more realistic themes about a gay teen coming out. If we’re going to have that, why complain about this?)

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer,” “Jurassic World”) stars in a winning performance as Simon Spier, your average suburban high-school senior with loving parents (Josh Duhamel & Jennifer Garner), a nice little sister (Talitha Bateman), and three good friends (Leah, played by Katherine Langford; Nick, played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.; and Abby, played by Alexandra Shipp). He has an enormous secret he’s not ready to tell anybody yet: he’s gay. He’s known it for quite a while now (ever since his “Harry Potter” bedroom poster gave him his awakening), but he confides in a secret email buddy, simply labeled “Blue,” about when would be the right time to tell anybody and risk messing up a life he loves. Blue is an anonymous classmate who is also gay and not ready to come out, and so, Simon and Blue communicate often, not letting on their real identities to each other (Simon calls himself “Jacques”).

But things go wrong when an obnoxious classmate, Martin (Logan Miller), discovers one of Simon’s emails to Blue and uses it to blackmail him in an attempt to get closer to Abby, whom he has a crush on. This results in numerous misunderstandings and confusing moments that cause Simon’s friends to wonder what’s really going on, while Simon is still trying his best to keep his secret until the time is right for him. But Martin isn’t making things any easier.

This character of Martin is utterly hateful, but he’s also all too real. We’ve seen this particular pathetic social outcast in high school (maybe we even were that character in high school, and we just didn’t know it). He’s pushy, kind of a bully, looking for friends in the wrong places, and obnoxious as a result. With that said, the problem with the character isn’t necessarily with him (though some of his actions are a bit forced, in order to keep the story flowing)—it’s that the things he does late in the film, which are inexcusable and make you hate him even more, have no repercussions. There are two side characters who perform a homophobic prank which results in a great verbal takedown by a teacher played by the very-funny Natasha Rothwell—couldn’t Martin have gotten the same treatment by this teacher? I would have loved to see this little turd get some kind of comeuppance.

The strengths of “Love, Simon” come from Simon’s interactions with his family and his friends. Once you know that he has this big secret, it makes those scenes intriguing to watch, because you know he’s testing these people, making sure they’re going to stay true to him if he stays true to them. With that in mind, the already-immensely-likable Simon earns more of the audience’s sympathy. We want him to find happiness, we want him to be comfortable with himself as well as with other people, and we also want him to find out who Blue is. That’s another strength with “Love, Simon”: finding out who Blue is. Is it the cool guy from the Halloween party? Is it the cute guy who works at Waffle House? Is it the sweet, sensitive guy from drama class? It’s a nice mix of mystery and comedy that keeps the film going in a tender direction.

I think everyone who hasn’t seen the film knows that by the end of the film, Simon’s secret is out. I won’t reveal everything that happens here, but I will say that the way the aftermath is handled is very effective. We get to see how everyone feels about it, and we see the differences from the opening act to the third act, and it’s handled very maturely. (Well, for the most part, it’s handled maturely—the film doesn’t go too far in the darker, more realistic territory when it comes to something like this.)

And then comes the question of whether or not heterosexual audience members, particularly teenage ones, will gain something from “Love, Simon.” I’d say so. Simon is an average teen with things in his life to feel good about and other things to be very uncertain about, and those latter things are kept inside for so long. So many teens can relate to that. And one of the best things about the final act of “Love, Simon” is that it addresses that. Simon has an important line near the end, “No matter what, announcing who you are to the world is pretty terrifying.” And that about sums it up.

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