Oh boy, a gay teen romcom that plays it utterly straight
Sweet and moving, ‘Love, Simon’ is comfortingly average – the point of it is not to stand out, but to fit in
Coming out is a darn sight easier than it ever used to be, which explains why a mainstream American teen comedy now exists about it, when this really wouldn’t have been thinkable a decade or two ago. Love, Simon aims to conform: to every contour of the high school romcom landscape, with the secrets, the gossip, the unrequited crushes and the indie-pop soundtrack. Sweet and moving as it often manages to be, the film is comfortingly average, in its way – the point of it not to stand out, but fit in.He hasn’t yet plucked up the courage to come out to his family or friends, and his sole confidant is an anonymous pen pal, another boy at school, who admits to being gay as well. These two pour out their hearts to each other, but only behind the safe curtain of e-mail aliases and, while Simon’s curiosity about the identity of “Blue” drives the story this way and that, his correspondent is resolute about playing coy.
One thing Love, Simon handles really nicely is the way it allows its hero’s longings to flit excitably from one guy to the next, in the manner of most inchoate crushes we have when we are young. He gets his hopes up that Blue might be one person, only to rule that person out and alight on the next candidate. Meanwhile his straight friends have a bunch of feelings towards one other, and in one case towards him, which get tangled up in his calculus, especially when a classmate called Martin (Logan Miller, terrific) snoops on a library computer and blackmails him to fulfil a romantic agenda of his own.If Simon had the guts, he’d come out there and then to avoid screwing up multiple friendships. But he’s also got Blue’s privacy to worry about, so he submits through gritted teeth to what Martin wants, and winds up feeling treacherous and alone at the precise moment when he needs his friends the most.Owning up to your sexual orientation will never not vary in awkwardness, but Love, Simon makes the important point that other people’s feelings count too – say, an ex-girlfriend’s, or your best friend’s, if she or he isn’t the first to know. Gay self-determination, however sassily and finger-snappily it tends to get sold to us, isn’t an excuse for caring about yours truly and no one else.
If the perfect suburban upbringing Simon has had ought to render his dilemma easier than most, the botch he makes of it is meant to be instructive – see, kids, an honest course would have saved a lot of hassle.Yes, his easygoing home life is an intentionally bland backdrop for this internal drama, but Greg Berlanti’s sunny, undemanding film might have given the boy himself a little more definition. It feels as though everyone else is standing around waiting for Simon to get interesting. As a character, he’s gay as a headline – one hesitates to say a punchline – and hasn’t got much else going on. And that’s perfectly okay – it just keeps the film a good league shy of a Lady Bird, or The Edge of Seventeen, or a Call Me By Your Name, as coming-of-age stories go.
But let’s look on the bright side. Love, Simon is a foot through the door for a gay teen in commercial cinema who doesn’t seek to be exceptional, in a film that doesn’t want to be, either. It’s a casual breakthrough, normalising what was once a taboo.
There are many moments to savour from the supporting cast, including Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell as quipping, intervening teachers and Talitha Bateman as his supportive sis. And there’s one stellar visual metaphor: a carnival ferris wheel going round and round, with Simon sitting on it in front of all his peers, hoping against hope that Blue will show up and share his pod. There, in a nutshell, is the nervous waiting game for a newly out teenager – wondering if you’ve just climbed aboard some sparkly but rickety life journey all by yourself.