I’m a middle aged straight cis white guy, so Love, Simon isn’t my story. But at the same time I found Love, Simon to be a story I could identify with deeply, personally and immediately, because Love, Simon is a truly human story with truly human concerns. For me this movie rebuts the silliness of retrograde white male issues with onscreen representation skewing away from us – if the movie is good and you’re open-hearted, even the most specifically identity-based story can speak to everyone in some way.
Based on the novel Simon vs the Homo-Sapiens Agenda, Love, Simon is maybe the first movie set in a truly post-21 Jump Street high school. Remember how one of the big jokes in that movie was that the next generation of kids were super woke and incredibly nice (man, was that prophetic or what)? Love, Simon happens in that milieu, where every kid in school is sort of supportive of one another and where people are surprised that anti-gay bullies actually exist.
On the surface this makes protagonist Simon’s dilemma low stakes. He’s secretly gay, but he’s secretly gay in a school where there is already a gay kid, and a super flamboyant one at that. He’s secretly gay in a school where the drama club is putting on Cabaret and it’s maybe not lame to be in it. He’s secretly gay in a post-ELLEN and post-gay marriage society.
But the stakes are incredibly high for Simon. Not in the way they would have been in a touching issues-based movie thirty years ago – he might be terribly beaten, or even killed – but in the way that is identifiable for all young people who are coming to terms with who they are, and how to present that to the world. The stakes are all personal – how this will impact his friendships, his relationship with his family, his own sense of self. Simon is gay, but not in that effervescent Queer Eye For the Straight Guy way – he wears a lot of hoodies and jeans, he’s into Daniel Radcliffe, not super-built athletes, he likes musicals but can’t see himself in a big rainbow-colored dance number (and yes, he does imagine one) – and so he’s trying to define himself not just in terms of his sexuality but where he personally exists within the cultural understanding of that sexuality.
I’m not trying to appropriate anyone else’s experience, but if that isn’t a universal coming of age concept, what is? This is what we all do as teens, try to figure out who we are and how we do or do not fit in with the world around ourselves. This, I think, is why we need to see other people’s stories in the movies, so that we can understand the ways in which they are just like our own. In recovery I learned a phrase: Look for the similarities, not the differences. Nobody’s story is exactly like yours, but everybody’s story has elements that resemble elements of yours. Every experience is unique and different, yet every experience echoes with other people’s experiences. By being open-hearted and by looking for the similarities we can find the places our stories intersect and we can understand that none of us are that different after all.
None of this would work if the movie were not good, and I think Love, Simon is wonderful. Greg Berlanti – best known, perhaps, for his CW DC superhero shows – has made a film that feels absolutely and truly of the moment, filled with hyper-specific things that relate to the world we live in now. This grounds Love, Simon not in a John Hughes-esque fantasy teen universe but in a very specific and tangible world. I have questions about how this film will age (more on that later), but one thing Love, Simon will forever do is define the late 2010s for generations to come. The music, the clothes, the pop culture references and the ways these kids interact with technology are all of the present moment; Berlanti isn’t forcing his late 80s high school experience into a modern setting. Sure, these kids are REALLY cool (Simon listens to The Kinks on vinyl, for fuck’s sake), and they are clearly influenced by the pop culture of the 80s and 90s, but they’re kids of today.
Nick Robinson plays Simon, and it’s a beautifully interior performance without being emo or mumbly. Robinson has heart and charm, and he really gets at the subtle nuances of this character. Yes, Simon is a rich white kid, but he’s confused and scared, and he does things with that confusion and fear that hurts other people. Robinson plays that well, never reducing the dickery to which Simon stoops but also letting us see the flustered decency that motivates his shittier actions.
Simon’s a great character because of that aspect – he hurts his friends, but he does it out of a misplaced attempt at self-defense. This is how we hurt most people most of the time; we’re not out there being malicious, we just think that we need to say/do things to protect ourselves, to advance our interests. Simon is so wrapped up in his own stories and his own concerns that he can’t see how his actions will impact others.
That’s selfishness, sure… but it’s selfishness we all indulge in. And like in Simon, our selishness is always driven by the stories we tell ourselves. Love, Simon visualizes this in a great way; Simon, still closeted, strikes up an email relationship with another closeted kid at his school. He doesn’t know who his email pal is, but throughout the movie he meets people and extrapolates these stories about them being his secret correspondent, and when that turns out to not be the case, Simon suffers. And because he’s so interested in advancing these stories he’s telling himself he takes actions that hurt his friends.
We all do this. We all get trapped in the stories we spin – we meet someone at a cafe and all of a sudden we’re planning a date, a wedding and a divorce. Sometimes when we really get caught up in these stories we bend over backwards to avoid reality, to not let our stories be punctured, and that’s when we make truly unwise choices.
Simon’s situation is complicated when resident nerd Martin discovers his emails. Martin uses the emails to blackmail Simon into helping him get with Simon’s friend Abby Suso, a new girl at school. Here Simon is trapped in the story of his life as it has been lived so far, and he’s afraid of the changes that will happen when he comes out. Because he’s clinging to his present story (Simon as normal high school kid with undefined sexuality) he’s willing to make more unwise choices to maintain that story.
Martin, played by Logan Miller, is a really interesting character. He’s the ‘bad guy’ here, although Love, Simon is so full of compassion that it even allows itself to see Martin’s side of the story. But what makes him really fascinating is that Martin is the hero of any previous teen romcom – a comedy nerd (he wears Caddyshack and National Lampoon shirts, has a Young Frankenstein poster in his room) who loves old movies and is just trying to find his own place as himself in this world… while also scheming to win the hot (but slightly outcast) new girl. Martin’s John Cusack in the 80s, or maybe Seth Rogen or another member of the Freaks & Geeks cast in the 90s/early 2000s. He’s given to over-the-top demonstrations of affection that he learned in the movies, and he treats Simon’s journey and life as just a subplot in his own story and life. Again, we see how the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leads to us making bad decisions.
Martin comes across like Berlanti thumbing his nose at a whole generation of outcast romcoms that never included his experience, and in fact made being gay the butt of jokes. It’s hard to look at Martin and NOT see him as a clapback against Judd Apatow’s entire oeuvre… but one presented with a kind of empathy that is usally only afforded Apatow’s protagonists. Martin is, in effect, a demolishing of all of my generation’s ideas of outcasts and romance, and I think it’s great to see happen. Not only because my punk roots make me always want to see the new generation destroy the old, but also because as I’ve grown “wiser” I’ve come to understand that Say Anything is kind of poison, and that High Fidelity filled me with some less-than-great ideas about relationships, and because I can’t imagine revisiting 40 Year Old Virgin’s “Know how I know you’re gay?” scene without wincing. Don’t get me wrong – I will always like and treasure those movies for what they are and understand them in their context, but at the same time I am so excited to see the culture move beyond the blind spots and limitations of my generation.
The supporting cast is pretty phenomenal. Berlanti (working from a screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger) gives the supporting characters enough room to breathe but truly relies on the actors to bring something special to their scenes. I had seen Alexandra Shipp before, but it wasn’t until her performance as Abby that I realized this actress would be someone who was going to be huge. Looking at his IMDB it seems that Jorge Lendeborg Jr, who plays Nick, will be very busy, and Love, Simon truly proves why. He’s got this affable screen presence and a deep vulnerability that makes you love him so completely. When Simon hurts him you’re truly angry with our lead – nobody should make Nick that angry!
I do wonder how Love, Simon will age. Movies like this – the kind of movies that feel like milestones when they’re released – are often the ones that people look back at with scorn. Will it be the upper classness of Love, Simon that ages poorly? Or are there representation issues that will become more apparent in the years to come (no non-binary characters)? However a future generation judges this movie by their own standards, I hope they can take a moment to also experience it in context. This is a gay teen love story without tragedy, a movie where being gay isn’t a fast lane to terrible abuse or death. It’s a movie where a gay teen has loving parents who, while not perfect, are doing their best and who accept him. It’s a movie that approaches being gay and coming out not as a world-shattering deviance but something pretty normal.
But more than its milestone aspects, Love, Simon is just a beautiful and funny coming of age story whose details are specific but whose broad strokes will be identifiable to anyone who ever tried to figure out who they are, and where they fit. I laughed often and warmly with the film, and I spent the last third crying so hard – sometimes from sadness, more often from joy and love – that I had a huge headache as the credits ran. There’s a poster quote: “This movie gave me a headache.” But it was a great headache, a cathartic and joyful headache that reminded me I could go to a movie and experience someone else’s truth while also having my own truth reflected in unexpected and unusual ways.