The high-school movie is a specific genre that can sometimes feel like it’s been done to death. Since the master John Hughes defined the style in the 80s most of the imitators have followed a relatively standard formula: Expect nerdy friends, unrequited love, parties with underage drinking, and most likely a big showy display of romance or two. Love, Simon demonstrates that there’s still new ground to break, as by being the first mainstream Hollywood movie to have a teenage gay protagonist it opens the formula up to uniquely authentic and heartfelt moments while providing some highly important representation.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a typical American teen who’s hiding the big secret of his sexuality from everyone, until one day an anonymous student from his high school makes an anonymous confession of their own homosexuality. Sending him an e-mail through the fake name “Jacques”, Simon begins to open himself up to this stranger (known only as “Blue”) and embrace the side of himself he’d kept hidden for so long. I appreciated how Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s screenplay, based on the book by Becky Alvertalli, offered a realistic depiction of how modern teenagers use technology – as while Vice Principal Mr Worth (Tony Hale) bemoans how much time the students spend looking at their phones, for Simon the Internet becomes a place he can find people going through the same experiences as him. The problem is that the Internet can also be used to tear people down, as Simon discovers when a classmate (Logan Miller) finds his e-mails and uses them to blackmail him. The actions of Miller’s character, Martin, were for me when the movie started to stretch the credible a bit. Through no fault of Miller’s performance I found Martin too grating a character – being simultaneously too evil in his threat to expose Simon’s sexuality, too stupid to think his plan would work, and too annoying to be entertaining. Thankfully Simon and his friends are more than likeable enough to make up for it.
Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, and Jorge Lendeborg are all able to jump from the lighter quirky touches that director Greg Berlanti infuses on the story to emotionally honest and open moments of confession and vulnerability, yet none more so than the leading actor. Robinson’s performance as Simon is truly beautiful – sensitive and touching as he grapples with his character’s struggle. We can practically see the weight of his secret on him and how much pain holding it back is causing him. Simon’s one-sided conversations with Blue force Robinson to express both love and heartbreak as he acts against a computer screen and he does so wonderfully, turning them into soulful and life-affirming moments of discovery. It helps how Berlanti uses these scenes to inject imaginative fantasy cuts ranging from Simon speculating the true identity of Blue to full-blown music and dance numbers, cleverly visualising how the mind gets lost in the excitement and anxieties of a first love. Add in a soundtrack produced by Jack Antonoff with music by Rob Simonsen that blends current popular artists with 80s synths and you get a film that evokes classic John Hughes while retaining modern sensibilities.
It doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say Love, Simon will be a life-defining movie for many. Moments like Simon first coming out to a friend or the reactions of his parents (wonderfully played by Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner) to how his life is changing are scenes that teenagers need to see, as they might help them through similar moments of their own. Conversations of youth sexuality and identity are important and worth having, and it never feels like the makers of Love, Simon are holding anything back. Ultimately it sends the message that all teenagers are hiding some sort of secret, whether it’s their sexuality, a crush on a friend, or the fears they don’t want others to see. The performances, screenplay, and direction all come together to provide a mainstream teen-romance that is authentic and honest, which is a remarkable feat. Even if the final declaration of love does feel a bit too grandiose and ‘cinematic’, in the years of men and women making enormous displays of affection to each other on the big screen it seems overdue to have a film where two men make their own romance public. If anything we could do with a few more like this.