There’s been a wonderful resurgence in the teen dramedy subgenre in the last few years that’s given audiences films like The Edge of Seventeen and Saturday Church. Films that take an honest look at teens in a period of crisis – whether it comes from an inability to process intense grief or to accept themselves as they are – are on the rise, and it’s providing a wonderful opportunity, not just for discussion, but for representation. In the case of the Greg Berlanti-directed Love, Simon, itself an adaptation from Becky Albertalli’s book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, what’s represented is a universal love story except with the twist of a young man struggling with his sexual identity. In truth, Love, Simon would fit perfectly within the great John Hughes’s collection of teen comedies, minus the abundance of horrific stereotypes films of the ’80s frequently featured.
Creekwood High School Senior Simon Spier (Everything, Everything’s Nick Robinson) is 208 days from graduation and is living everyday terrified that someone will learn his secret – he’s gay. Though he knows that being out is largely accepted, he’s worried about how it will change the way people view him and, as a result, change the way he views himself. When someone posts an anonymous letter online claiming to be the only closeted student at Creekwood, Simon reaches out under the pseudonym Jacques and a sweet relationship beings to build on the foundation of openness. Suddenly, every student Simon sees could be the anon poster which simultaneously puts love everywhere but just out of his reach, all the while his friends find themselves falling in and out of love all around him.
Berlanti’s soft, sincere touch that’s worked so well for him in other projects he’s worked on – Supergirl, The Flash, Eli Stone, and Everwood may immediately come to mind for many – is apparent here as he brings about a story that could have easily fallen into cliché. It’s this sincerity, this pure honesty, which prevents Love, Simon from devolving into a lampoon of teen comedies rife with stereotypes and gross-out jokes. Rather, Berlanti abandons this expectation, selecting instead to fill Love, Simon with fully-formed individuals who each possess needs and motivations. The aforementioned projects Berlanti’s known for do have a tendency to wallow in the saccharine. Gratefully, however, Love, Simon never does. Berlanti doesn’t ask his audience to fall in love with Simon but to merely see him as he is: human. Given that the story of Love, Simon is a multi-faceted one, it makes sense to ensure we see Simon the same way.
To create an emotionally compelling film, it’s not enough, though, to have a director with a clear vision of a story. While it certainly helps that Berlanti tapped screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker to adapt Albertalli’s book, given their experience on the weepathon that is This Is Us, the real strength comes from the powerhouse assemblage of young actors filling the roles. The central cast of Robinson, Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) as Leah, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Brigsby Bear) as Nick, and Alexandra Shipp (Tragedy Girls) as Abby each deliver genuine performances. None of them are stereotyped in any way. Instead, each are given specific moments to demonstrate both their singularity as well as their respective closeness. So when the turn comes in Love, Simon, we feel the weight of it immeasurably. In support of this cast is Keiynan Lonsdale (The Flash) as classmate Bram, Logan Miller (Before I Fall) as fellow thespian Martin, Tony Hale (Veep) as Vice-Principal Mr. Worth, and Jennifer Gardner (Juno) and Josh Duhamel (Transformers film series) as Emily and Jack Spier, Simon’s parents. Their individual portrayals are simultaneously authentically imperfect and emotionally moving. These five characters represent some form of anchor for the central cast to revolve around; however, it’s their relationship with Simon that makes their presence significant.
The only thing that brings down the entire experience of Love, Simon is (minor spoiler alert) the moment the film builds toward – a clichéd moment in near every romcom – that directly contradicts a previous declaration by Simon about choosing how someone outs themselves. Early in the film, Simon, frustrated by the societal default toward heteronomy – illustrated beautifully in a bittersweet montage depicting his friends coming out as hetero to their parents – declares that the choice of when and how to come out is a personal one that shouldn’t be forced by anyone else. So when the film builds toward the staple romcom moment where one character publicly declares their love, as utterly sweet and wonderful as it is to behold, it’s also a grossly disrespectful move by Simon. Sure, he’s ready to out himself publicly, but to force his self-professed love to do the same feels wrong by his own standards, no matter how much we the audience root for him.
Love, Simon is undoubtedly destined to become a cinematic essential for teen audiences in the same way that Pretty in Pink, Say Anything, or Weird Science are for children of the ’80s. It doesn’t talk down to its audience. Rather, it shares their insecurities and says, “We see you. We hear you. We are you.” When the whole world seems so focused on shouting-down teens or telling them what/who to love, Love, Simon offers a refreshing respite from that pressure, reminding audiences that who we are is defined by ourselves, not by others, and that it’s ok to take a moment to exhale, look around, and take a first step toward the best version of ourselves. Even if that means getting romantic AF.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.