Subject: Four out of five stars
Dear Readers of PCU,
Admittedly, the title of this review is a little bit of a misnomer because Love, Simon is definitely a movie you’ve seen before. It’s a John Hughes-esque high school romantic comedy, and at times, it can get a little trope-y and clichéd. But in this particular case, that’s not a bad thing. As the first-ever romantic comedy led by a gay teen character to be widely marketed and backed by a major studio, the fact that Love, Simon reads as if it’s just another high school movie is part of why it works, and frankly also what puts it miles ahead of its contemporaries.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young adult novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the movie stars Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) as Simon Spier, a closeted seventeen-year-old in his senior year of high school. When an anonymous classmate who goes by the pseudonym Blue uses the school’s gossip blog to announce that he’s gay, Simon adopts the alias Jacques (a reference to “Jacques a dit,” the French equivalent of “Simon says”), begins an email correspondence with the boy, and starts to feel as if he can finally be himself, even if it is ironically only with somebody who doesn’t actually know who he is. The walls start to close in on him, however, when he accidentally leaves the emails up on a school computer and class clown Martin (The Walking Dead’s Logan Miller) finds them and uses them to blackmail Simon into hooking him up with Simon’s friend Abby (X-Men: Apocalypse’s Alexandra Shipp).
Firstly, I’d like to dispel a few potential condemnations. LGBTQ advocates may ding director Greg Berlanti’s decision to cast Robinson, who is straight in real life, as his lead character. While I’m all for creating opportunities for minority performers, I’ve always felt like a role should be cast on the actor’s merit as the best person for the job rather than due to a certain facet of their identity that they bring to the table. Sexuality is something that can be masked, that can be performed (closeted gay people do it every day, albeit for very different reasons), so casting a straight actor to play a gay character (or vice versa) is not the equivalent of casting a Caucasian actor to play a role obviously written for an Asian actor, just as an example.
And although I can’t definitively state that Robinson, an actor whose career I’ve been following since his professional debut in 2010 as Melissa Joan Hart’s nephew Ryder on Melissa & Joey and that I would optimistically bet will become one of my generation’s top leading men in ten to fifteen years, is, in fact, the best person (for the obvious reason that he’s the only actor I’ve seen play the character), he does a damn fine job. There’s a scene early in the film where Simon and his family gather on the living room couch to watch The Bachelor together and Simon’s dad, Jack (Josh Duhamel), makes an off-handed remark about how the titular bachelor is “fruity” and clearly “a one-man pride parade.” Behind Duhamel, you can see Robinson give a little side-eye, suck in his breath, and just visibly grit his teeth, as if Simon is literally biting his tongue so as not to respond. Gay people have bullies and their insults and actions no doubt hurt, but what tends to sting even more are the otherwise innocuous comments like Jack’s from friends and family. It’s moments like this, layered in such nuance and subtlety, that Robinson shines as the character.
That’s also not to say that he’s so subtle that he won’t break your heart as well. When Simon learns that Martin has outed him to the whole school, the raw emotion in Robinson’s face is quite honestly soul-crushing. Or when Martin futilely attempts to apologize in the school parking lot and Robinson gets to go off no holds barred with a scene from the trailer – “I’m supposed to be the one that decides when and where and who knows. That’s supposed to be my thing! And you took that from me!” – is powerful without being over the top. Or when he inadvertently walks in on one of his multiple crushes, Bram (newly minted Legends of Tomorrow series regular Keiynan Lonsdale), making out with a girl at a Halloween party, the way his face suddenly drops and he fumbles around for an excuse to leave makes you want to reach into the movie, wrap him up in a hug, and tell him everything’s going to be okay.
Additionally, book purists may fault the movie for downplaying some aspects of the novel, like relegating Simon’s loves of Elliott Smith and Harry Potter to posters and a Hufflepuff badge on his bedroom walls; or outright erasing other aspects, like the existence of his older sister. While I don’t know why some of these decisions were made, I can say, as somebody who hadn’t read the book until after I saw the movie for the first time, it doesn’t affect the plot or characters too much. I do wish they had left at least some of the Elliott Smith stuff in to give Simon and Blue something concrete to bond over, but that’s negligible.
The rest of the cast, particularly 13 Reasons Why breakout Katherine Langford as Simon’s best friend Leah, is also stellar. Tony Hale can get a little annoying as the way too friendly principal, but he’s still pretty good. Meanwhile, Natasha Rothwell (HBO’s Insecure) is busy stealing every scene she’s in as the frustrated drama teacher prepping a hopeless production of Cabaret! See, I was an A/V nerd in high school, and if I were prepping a set and my faculty advisor came up to me and said, “It needs to look like a real German sex club. Don’t ask me how I know that that isn’t one,” I’d have been no good.
Lastly, Jennifer Garner, who takes full advantage of a script written by This Is Us‘ Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, will turn you into a blubbering mess. She gives a speech near the top of the third act that will almost inevitably (if a bit unfairly) be compared to Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue at the end of Call Me by Your Name. “These last few years, it’s almost like I could feel you holding your breath,” she tells her son. “You can finally exhale, Simon. You finally get to be more you than you’ve been in a very long time.” It’s the kind of beautifully eloquent, life-affirming speech that every gay person imagines hearing from their parent as they wrestle with the decision of whether or not to come out.
Love, Simon is also really funny, which is more than I can say for most films of the genre. For example, there are a few fantasy sequences peppered throughout the movie. In one case, Simon writes to Blue that he’s not sure why only gay people have to come out, why straight is the default; this triggers a hilarious montage where Simon’s friends “come out” as straight to their parents. In another, Simon says that he plans to live out and proud once he’s away at college; cut to Simon dancing through his dorm (littered with posters of half-naked men) and the campus of Liberal University a little off-beat to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” as he tries catching up with the groove of those around him.
If I had to point out an issue with the film, it would be Duhamel’s character, specifically in the moments after Simon is dragged out of the closet. Simon officially comes out to his parents as the family opens presents on Christmas morning and Jack mumbles something in response and then walks out of the room, and it’s almost like he’s vacating the movie entirely because we neither see nor hear from him again for (I would estimate) about twenty minutes of screen time when Simon comes home, bumps into Jack in the driveway, they talk about their feelings, and then hug it out. It does lead to a rather amusing exchange about Grindr, but that’s beside the point. Also, I would have liked to have seen more comedy from Langford. She’s only really given three notable moments and one and a half of them are in the two trailers.
All in all, Love, Simon is far from a perfect movie, but it’s still completely worth the price of admission. I’ve already made plans with different sets of friends to see it two more times across opening weekend because I – and I hope you – really want this movie to be a box office success. This is the movie that gay people, especially gay teenagers, have needed in the mainstream forever. It’s the movie they’ve been waiting for to look them dead in the eye and proclaim as loudly and clearly as it can, “There is nothing wrong with you. You deserve a great love story, too.” I wholeheartedly believe that Love, Simon is going to change people’s lives.
So thank you, Simon, for finally exhaling and giving all of the people like you somebody that they’ve desperately needed – a person to look up to. Thank you, Becky, for creating this character, and thank you, Greg and Fox, for giving him a film. Thank you, Nick, for putting in arguably your best performance to date. And thank you to everybody else who had a hand in the pot, no matter how small. It means something.
Love, Simon hits theaters in two weeks on Friday, March 16.