A seemingly ordinary coming-of-age tale that looms large because of its inclusive romantic embrace, Love, Simon wins you over by capturing your heart without pushing too hard for the prize. Given the recent high points of gay cinema on the indie circuit – the Oscar-garlanded Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name being the most high-profile examples – it’s a surprise to learn that director Greg Berlanti’s extraordinary drama is the first mainstream studio release to put a closeted teen front and center. (Television has been way ahead for years on this front.) This adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda goes gentler into the topic than you might expect – or perhaps want. But the safe, PG-13 approach could win a wider audience for a movie that gay teens, raised on straight romcoms, have been longing to see for generations.
It helps that Berlanti, who’s been making innovative changes on the TV teen scene with shows ranging from Dawson’s Creek to Riverdale, is the just the guy to bring a cutting edge to the non-threatening script from the This Is Us team of Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker. It also helps that he’s a whiz with actors. Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) is wonderfully funny and touching as Simon Spier, a senior at an Atlanta high school where coming to terms with your sexuality is, well, as hard as it is anywhere else. His parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) seem liberal enough to handle the news. But Simon is too uncertain to open up to them about sex. Did Dad just refer to some guy as “fruity?” Yes, he did.
“I’m just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret,” our hero informs us in a voiceover as he watches a hunky gardener get busy with a leaf blower. He hangs at school with Leah (Katherine Langford), soccer jock Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp), but these loyalists – or his friend with the acidic wit, Ethan (Clark Moore, terrific) – are not enough to spur him to say it loud and say it proud. Berlanti keeps the laughs bubbling with these characters and with the school’s vice-principal (Tony Hale) and drama teacher (all hail Natasha Rothwell!). But the fear nagging at Simon never really dissipates.
That’s one reason why he starts an anonymous online hook-up with a classmate, who calls himself “Blue” and seems equally reluctant to tell the world who he is and what he feels. Their email relationship is the core of the film as Simon tries to ID Blue from a list of suspects. including studly Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale), musician Cal (Miles Heizer) and friendly waiter Lyle (Joey Pollari). In a highlight scene, Simon imagines an out future for himself in college set to a Whitney Houston dance number. Things get complicated when Martin (Logan Miller), a creepy classmate, discovers Simon’s secret and threatens to blackmail him with it unless he sets him up on a date with Abby.
Yes, the plot mechanics tend to lean toward the disappointingly slick and sitcom-ish. But what redeems the film and makes it such an exuberant gift is the sincere joy Berlanti and the actors take in celebrating its protagonist’s growing self awareness. Love, Simon is a John Hughes movie for audiences who just got woke. And for all its attempts not to offend, it’s a genuine groundbreaker.