It’s going to be hard to talk about Love, Simon, the new gay teen romantic comedy from Fox (yep!), without it turning into a therapy session. Bright and attractive in both cast and production design, Greg Berlanti’s film—adapted from the best-selling young-adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—has a pleasant bearing. Though it tells an emotional story about identity and coming out, it’s an easygoing movie, glossy and kind and cozily corny. And yet, for me, it was also a fraught experience, both pained and giddy, cheering and dismaying. It’s a lot, this little movie.
Well, maybe it’s not little. Love, Simon is the first major studio film about a gay kid coming out. Which is a rather big deal, even if the movie is just a spring comedy. (And actually, maybe that it’s a spring comedy makes it a bigger deal.) Love, Simon arrives poised to accommodate a lot of baggage, with each gay person who sees it hanging a little of their own on the movie (or, I suppose, just choosing not to engage with it at all). The thinking—and part of the marketing strategy—is that Love, Simon will offer an opportunity to have a certain burden lifted, that it will do the honorable representational work of letting us see our past and present and future selves on the big screen in warm and celebratory ways. We will see Love, Simon and feel counted, finally.
And, in some ways, yeah, I did. The story of a 16-year-old, Simon (Nick Robinson), who isn’t quite ready to come out until he begins an anonymous e-mail romance with another closeted boy at his school, Love, Simon is exciting in how directly and wholly it focuses on its gayness. Simon is maybe—with all of Robinson’s boyish, straight-acting physicality and timbre—one of those “just happens to be gay” types, but he is nonetheless gay, something the film reminds us of, textually or subtextually, in just about every scene. (I only wish a fantasy sequence in which Simon imagines what life as an out gay guy in college will be like didn’t end with Simon saying in voice-over, “Well, maybe not that gay.” Why not that gay? Why not more gay?) It’s thrilling and almost surreal to be given two hours of this—without anything shaded, coded, or tragic—in studio packaging, cynically capitalist as it may be. Cherished as the sparse apartments and simple photography of so many beloved Strand and TLA releases are, gay stuff looks good on a bigger budget.
The film’s performances only add to the movie’s affable sparkle. Though I wish his Simon read, frankly, a bit gayer, Robinson is no doubt a charmer, a handsome guy who gives a committed, sensitive performance. The actors who play Simon’s friends, antagonists, and love interests—among them Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, and Keiynan Lonsdale (swoon)—all provide strong support, giving the movie’s teen socializing a credible energy, even if these kids are a little more volubly eloquent than their real-life counterparts. (Snappy dialogue that works in a witty book doesn’t always work on screen, something screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker are hip to about half the time.) And Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are cuddly and generous as Simon’s doting parents, with Garner in particular nailing the movie’s most thoughtful, well-articulated scene.
Story-wise, the movie moves along well, telling a surprisingly intricate tale of crushes and secret identities. Some of Love, Simon‘s plot developments are startlingly dark—chief among them a blackmailing scheme that proves disastrous—and it would be nice to see the film interrogate or contextualize that a bit more. Much of Simon’s online romance is just that: online. And it is hard to dramatize e-mailing on film. So Simon’s relationship to “Blue,” his Internet paramour, may feel richer in book form. But mostly, the film does a graceful job of illustrating Simon‘s inner turmoil—his fear not of being gay, but of life changing too drastically when he announces that he is—while maintaining its spirited, funny, humane air. It’s a cringe-y movie, so beware if you’re averse to that sort of thing. (I am, and I survived.) B-stories weave in well with Simon’s main through-line, and the movie ends with a sense of equity for each of its well-drawn kids. (Even if Langford’s character sorta gets the shaft. Or doesn’t, so to speak.)
So, all of that is good. I left the theater a little jumpy and lightheaded, laughing with a friend about how silly and flushed we felt. Love, Simon’s well-meaning “finally!” is a heady thing to witness, its closing scenes so happy and affectionate that you want to hug someone. (Or kiss someone!)
It was a fleeting high, though. By the time I got home from the theater (O.K., my friend and I had a couple of drinks to calm down—but after that), something had soured in me, and the film began to take on a darker—or at least more troubled—edge. What I’ve been wrestling with the past couple of weeks is how much of that is the film’s doing, and how much of it is a product of my own stuff. All that baggage I’d temporarily lent to Love, Simon quickly started to weigh on me again, even feeling a bit heavier than before.
I think it has something to do with the kind of imagining we gay adults are made to do about a movie like this. “What if I’d had that when I was a kid?” we find ourselves saying with awe, with wistfulness, with maybe (definitely?) a pang of jealousy. (And, of course, “What if I’d lived that?”) Or, at least, I do. It’s a bittersweet activity, this nostalgia for a youth we wish we had, and for a youth we hope gay kids are having now. But is it a healthy one?
Of course adults owe it to young people to educate them, to provide for them, to help clarify the emotional world for them. And, yes, a part of that duty may be giving them a likable, sometimes frustratingly ungay gay teen comedy about a wealthy kid whose Nancy Meyers–ian life is mildly disrupted until it isn’t, and he’s met with broad and unquestionably loving support throughout. Judging from the reaction to a recent Time piece that had the temerity to ask if Love, Simon’s pleasingly bland depiction of relatively normative gayness would appeal to today’s more socially conscious teens (a good and fair question worth engaging with beyond the piece’s headline, folks), there seems to be a demand, an eager anticipation for this movie. So if Love, Simon does something—entertains, elates, transports—for those queer kids in need of it, then it’s all worth it.
There’s still a part of me that wonders if kids now, with YouTube and Instagram offering up a plethora of gay peers to look in on, are quite as starved for this movie as older generations were. But whether or not Gen Z-ers find something nourishing and of value in the movie, what are we gay adults to do with it? Does it even matter what we do with it?
What I’ve been sort of dancing around here is this: a few hours after seeing Love, Simon, I felt kinda depressed. All that sweet longing for a teenagehood I never had—and a movie that I never got—hardened into a regret, a bitterness. The same goes, in some ways, for Call Me by Your Name, though that film’s meditative whispers have proven a more lasting balm than Love, Simon’s quick and clumsy burst of poignancy. I think I might just be a little tired—for the moment—of thinking melancholically about what could have been, tired of tilling the earth of my teenage years and imbuing it with these fantasies, and then assuming that means I’ve been fulfilled, that I’ve been satisfyingly represented in cinema.
Love, Simon is not being marketed to gay adults expressly, but plenty of gay adults will see it—hungry for this first moviegoing experience, the one largely denied to them as kids. Which is good. I hope they love it, and that its intended audience of teens loves it, and that the movie makes a boatload of money. And I hope some of that money will then be used to make studio movies about, and for, gay adults, and gay old people, and gay people who are gayer than Nick Robinson, and gay movie critics staring down the barrel of their 35th birthday. All kinds of gay people!
I—and many others, I’m sure—could benefit from a reminder that gay lives are not solely defined by primal discovery, that they exist long past first blushes. First blushes are great, and we’ve been blessed with several good films about them recently, including Love, Simon. But as much as Love, Simon’s winning, if slightly bowdlerized, coming-out story initially made me yearn for an altered youth, it’s since made me yearn even more for stories that reflect my gay life today, or my gay life as it might be years from now. (And your gay life, and your gay life, and your gay life.) Here’s hoping for those movies in the near future. Think of it this way: if those films get made now, they’ll be there waiting for today’s teens—soon to be smitten with Simon—when they eventually get older and grow hungry for something more. Do it for them, Hollywood. And for us, too.
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