Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) has the kind of life that most teens can only dream of. He has a family that he truly likes, a home straight out of a catalogue, a new car, close friends Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) and is getting good grades whilst chugging iced coffees. It’s a blessed life except for one thing; Simon has been keeping his sexuality a secret from those he loves most.
Terrified that his cosy life will change, he’s unable to tell people that he loves that he’s gay until he reads about a fellow closeted kid who is posting anonymously on his high school blog. Simon tentatively begins an email exchange with the anonymous gay kid (nicknamed Blue) but when his emails get into the hands of Martin (Logan Miller) he uses them to blackmail Simon into setting up dates between him and Abby. Simon is forced to re-evaluate the viability of his secret sexuality and must imagine what his life might look like as an openly gay high-schooler.
In a different world Love, Simon could simply be what it is; a funny, sincere, gently moving story about a boy working out the parameters of his own happiness. It’s sweet, and competently made, and has an emotional arc that almost everyone can relate to. Yet as one of the first major motion pictures that concerns itself primarily with the love life of a gay man in a romantic comedy set-up, it has to speak for more than itself. As such, Love, Simon has been a lightning rod for discussion; presented as a breakthrough in gay cinema as well as a disappointingly generic snapshot of what it means to come out.
It’s probably neither of these things and both at the same time. It feels familiar right up until it feels revelatory, and it hits all of the anticipated narrative beats whilst chiming just a few new ones. It’s lovely and it’s ordinary. It’s smarter than it has to be, though no more than other good examples of the genre. But that’s what makes it special; Love, Simon has a magical ordinariness, you could come across it on Netflix and be charmed by it first and interrogate it as a gay narrative second.
Unfortunately, with such limited representation of young gay lead characters in mainstream Hollywood genres, Love, Simon is tasked with carrying the burden of representation for the LGBTQ+ community in ways that other rom-coms simply aren’t. While it’s true that the film represents just about the best circumstances in which someone may have to come out, it’s a white-washed world of financial privilege and sympathetic liberal parenting, though there are several nods to the racial and religious diversity of the gay community. It presents a John Hughes world in which the greatest stumbling block to personal happiness is an unwillingness to take personal responsibility – that the key to lasting joy is being true to yourself. In the real world, we know that there are many more complicating factors facing young members of the LGBTQ+ community, a large number of which are external; disapproving parents, an increasingly hostile political climate, religious opposition, and aggressive schoolmates, to name a few.
Love, Simon skirts around these issues, though doesn’t ignore them completely, in order to tell a story that may seem in some ways alien to anyone that doesn’t look like a model or isn’t in one of the higher tax brackets. That just may be the point. The romantic comedy as a whole is often maligned or disregarded as escapist fantasy, but that fantasy allows filmmakers to explore the intricate emotions of people, the way that they fall in, and become fearful, of love. By removing some of the everyday concerns of the audience, the rom-com allows them to zero in on the kinds of emotions that get side-lined in other genres. It reveals the secret hopes and fears of people when they aren’t worrying about money, or fighting giant robots, or trying to master their newfound superpowers. Indeed, this is where Love, Simon succeeds; in telling a small story about how hard it can be to declare who you are and who you want to be.
It will hopefully be heartening for young audiences to see a story that takes the heartbreaks and triumphs of a gay teenager seriously. It’s particularly compassionate to the ways in which coming out both reinforces and disrupts a person’s sense of self. In one of the movie’s most sensitively rendered scenes, Simon tries to assure those around him that he hasn’t changed, that all that has happened is an invisible thing about him has become visible. It’s a clever nod, from a deceptively clever screenplay, to the fact that a lot of the fear of declaring a new identity is the fear that you won’t be able to retreat back to who you once were.
Love, Simon depicts coming out as a struggle between wanting to declare your difference whilst wanting things to stay the same; a dichotomy that is given real emotional weight and narrative traction. In some ways, by adopting the trappings of the rom-com, which those unsympathetic to the genre will dismiss as artificial, the movie is able to reveal some universal truths about how frightening the prospect of not being loved is, as well as how scary it can be to want to be loved.
The film feels surprisingly well-attuned to the small, shifting emotional peaks and valleys of almost every character, with some fairly full emotional arcs handed over to even third-tier characters. Despite concerning itself with Simon’s struggle, it never feels myopic; two big moments between Simon and his parents (bolstered by lovely, fine-tuned performances from Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) provide short but keen insights into the myriad of ways that family members fear that they have let each other down. Anyone who has ever kept a secret or had to grapple with the limitations of a comfortable life will surely recognize when Simon’s mom reassures him that he can finally exhale after years of holding his breath.
Equally, Simon’s relationship with Leah is one that plays out again and again in the real world, but rarely gets this sensitive treatment on-screen. Sometimes this doesn’t work and pulls focus from Simon’s love story; a mid-movie gear change in which Simon is revealed to have betrayed his friends feels vaguely out of place and the much anticipated romantic denouement is swoon-worthy but somewhat airy because the romantic leads have little-to-no screen time together.
Jorge Lendenborg, Jr., Nick Robinson, Alexandra Shipp and Katherine Lanford (20th Century Fox)
The best rom-coms are about transformation, about becoming someone that you worried you would never be able to become, and Simon’s transformation is consistently convincing. Nick Robinson puts in a surprising, funny, emotionally involving performance that toes the line between likeable and authentic impressively. Somehow, he conveys a person who could, at the slightest provocation, burst into tears or a fit of laughter, which is an enormously appealing combination. Robinson is more than capable of doing the film’s dramatic heavy lifting (the films biggest gut-punch, involving a gossip site and Simon’s sister, is intimately acted to the point that it feels surprisingly raw) and is equally happy when playing drunk slap-stick.
Those looking for a radical queer teen rom-com may be disappointed by Love, Simon. It’s more Hallmark movie than a meditation on the richness and cultural diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and experience. But maybe that is radical in and of itself. It’s a movie about opening yourself up in ways that allow people to truly show how much they love you. It’s a movie about how keeping a secret can make you a stranger to yourself and others. If it’s pedestrian in some ways, then young gay audiences deserve that, too.
So much of this film brings to mind rom-coms of the ’90s; the emails, the big romantic gesture, the fairground, the struggle to be true to yourself and to what you want. But this film belongs to those who were either ignored or maligned in those films; it wrestles the signifiers from a genre of films and puts them in the hands of someone who wouldn’t have seen himself in them.
In the opening moments of the other falling-in-love-after-exchanging-email-addresses rom-com, You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1988), Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) emails her internet paramour in voice-over whilst she wanders New York. In the background, the Cranberries sing the most bracing line from the hit song “Dreams” — “you have my heart so don’t hurt me”. What feels most revelatory about Love, Simon is that it shows coming out, even to someone as well placed to do so as Simon, as a series of attempts to hand your heart over to people and a series of subsequent pleas for people not to hurt it. Simon has to ask his dad to treat him the same way, his mother to support him, his best friend to renegotiate what love might mean for her, his blackmailer to have compassion, and his anonymous crush to take a chance on him. It isn’t presented as easy, but nor it it presented as the end of the world, which is refreshing in a cinema landscape which frequently shows gay life as grim and mired by confrontation (though, of course, those narrative are much needed too.)
Love, Simon won’t represent everyone’s coming out story (that is unless most of the population lives in a Clearasil commercial), but it’s funny and heart-warming and interested in asking bigger questions than it can really answer. Most of all, by making the rom-com belong to Simon, it means it belongs to all of us, too.