Amid the tired and unsatisfying crowd of coming-of-age movies and high school romantic comedies plaguing the 2010s, “Love, Simon” is a refreshing breath of authentic, modern and unapologetic gay teenage identity.
Set in a picturesque Atlanta suburb, “Love, Simon” tells the story of 17-year-old Simon Spier, played by Nick Robinson, who, within the opening minutes of the film, promises the audience he is just like them: He has a close-knit family and supportive friends; he loves iced coffee and “Hamilton”; and he listens to Bleachers and The 1975 on his way to school.
But beyond this well-curated image is a deeper anxiety: Simon knows he is gay but is scared coming out will fundamentally change his life.
Action begins when another closeted teen in Simon’s class posts about being gay on their high school confessions page and Simon begins to communicate with him via email. The pen pals develop an honest and open relationship centered on their personal struggles embracing their gay identities and coming out. Crisis hits when a classmate of Simon discovers his emails and blackmails him, demanding help seducing Simon’s friend Abby, played by Alexandra Shipp. Simon balances these demands with his slow coming out process, all while trying to discover who his love interest is.
In melding elements of mystery, romance and the coming out story, director Greg Berlanti — who himself is a member of the LGBTQ community — masterfully shows the complexities and angst that come with youth, when appearance seems to be everything and self-expression is a carefully regulated process.
Berlanti’s adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young adult novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” resists the temptations of oversaturated tropes and stereotypical characters, while playing up coming-of-age cliches to weave a feel-good love story through good writing and excellent acting. Robinson’s performance, combined with Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s screenwriting, makes “Love, Simon” an accessible and wonderfully relatable experience.
This authentic and modern feel comes from Berlanti’s experience with young adult audiences, whom he has grown to know through his work on hits like “Riverdale,” “The Flash” and “Supergirl,” as well as his and his partner’s experiences coming out in adulthood.
The film has its shortcomings: Simon’s character, a masculine, straight-passing gay man, could benefit from a deeper portrayal of his personality beyond the boy-next-door trope, and his coming out process surely benefits from his white, upper-middle class background. Moreover, Robinson, the film’s lead, is not queer himself, raising concerns about representation in Hollywood films.
Still, “Love, Simon” marks an inspiring first for gay representation in Hollywood films aimed at a mainstream audience. The movie’s cast is also ethnically diverse, featuring strong performances from black actors and actresses like Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Keiynan Lonsdale, who complement Robinson’s performance through every twitch, smirk and tear.
Lacking the sensual and erotic nature of some queer awakenings, “Love, Simon” embraces its wholesome family appeal with touching conversations between Simon and Abby, Simon and his parents — played by the heartwarming duo of Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel — and Simon and his childhood friend Leah, played by Katherine Langford.
Indeed, “Love, Simon” confidently establishes itself in a modern setting: Audiences are reminded of the social and political issues around them through references to the 2017 Women’s March and the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as well as cultural moments like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” musical.
These references set the movie in a strikingly progressive world — a post-marriage equality United States where support for gay rights is at an all-time high — but also an environment where homophobia remains alive and insidious, as evidenced by the bullying Simon and Ethan, an out, femme, black classmate, experience.
Despite this external stress, “Love, Simon” offers audiences the fairytale romance queer teens need right now: With a significant increase in LGBTQ people reporting discrimination, seeing this portrayal of gay love and LGBTQ representation in a major Hollywood studio’s project is refreshing and encouraging.
In short, the film moves the realm of LGBTQ movies forward from the outdated model of teaching tolerance by provoking audiences to ask: “Why is straight the default?” In doing so, “Love, Simon” unapologetically declares what many gay Americans have always thought: “Yes, I am gay, and I deserve my own great love story, too.”