By Jason Abdow
Back in high school I was a big fan of that subject of YA novels that were seemingly made to make teenagers emotional. I must have read every John Green book out there over the course of a couple months, and for the record “Looking for Alaska” is still one of my favorite novels ever. But the truth is, I feel I might have outgrown some of these stories over the last few years which was why I had particularly low expectations for “Love, Simon.”
The trailer made the movie look fine, I was mainly just concerned the film would have no character to it. It seemed to be yet another YA adaptation that would be filled with all of the clichés you would expect. There was still a less cynical side of me that was hoping for something refreshing, however. This is the first LGBT love story to be put into wide release by a major studio, a fact that is mind-blowing in 2018, and I was hoping that maybe it would be more than just a piece of movie trivia.
For the first 10 minutes or so of “Love, Simon” I was struggling to engage with it at all. We start with our main protagonist Simon (Nick Robinson) giving that typical narrated exposition that is has definitely been played out with these kind of movies. It was irritating to listen to Simon talk about his life was “just like everyone else’s” while we see him get surprised with a new car for his birthday, go through his beautiful home and hear about how attractive and successful his parents are. It was a very disconnecting moment and should have certainly been rewritten. Then we get into Simon’s social life and again are exposed to nothing new or interesting, just more high school clichés that had me expecting the worst. And then everything started to change for me. There was not really a single moment that made everything click for me, but the story gradually began to win me over as I became more and more engaged with Simon’s story. The script no longer felt like it was trying so hard and the story felt surprisingly natural. Soon enough I was completely invested into everything Simon was going through.
I think what helps sell this movie was Nick Robinson’s nuanced performance as Simon. He plays Simon as a bit of an introvert but never fails to lose his personality. His core group of friends are all charming and have solid enough chemistry to sell their relationships with each other, and it is nice to see Katherine Langford in a different type of role following “13 Reasons Why.” As for the few adult actors, they all do commendable work as well. Simon’s parents, played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, both have scenes to showcase their acting abilities and Tony Hale has fun with his role as Simon’s Vice Principal.
But I realize the actor’s performances are not going to be why this movie will be buzzed about, nor should it be the reason. Everyone wants to know how the story of a closeted gay teen is told. And as someone who never had to go through this particular life experience, I totally connected with Simon’s struggle. I think that is where “Love, Simon” succeeds the most. It established a strong empathetic connection between the viewer and Simon so everyone can feel connected to it. Some will argue that painting Simon as a little broad in order to do this is lazy but after films like “Moonlight” and “Call Me By Your Name” I see no reason for us to have a broader LGBT story told, especially if it becomes as much of a crowd pleaser as this. Because unlike those two films, and all the other great indie LGBT stories that have been told, “Love, Simon” is marketing itself wide to help better expose itself to an audience that might not get a chance to see those other films. It is also wise in using empathy to win over and attract audiences that might not be part of the LGBT community.
I saw this movie opening night with my girlfriend and the only other people in the theater were a typical nuclear family (mom, dad, grandma, kids) and another large group of teenage girls, none of us were like Simon yet at the end people were clapping and cheering, laughing and crying along with everyone else. So while the cynic in me might have complained about this movie being too tame, I am still glad it exists because of how powerful it will be for many people. And while I recommend this movie to just about everyone, it is not because it is a gay movie that should be supported for being a gay movie, it is a genuinely charming film that will please everyone like it did in my theater. And I am sure if you are a closeted teenager or ever were one in the past, this will hit hard and true for you and that is even more a reason to see it. I know I would have adored every second of this movie had it come out when I was 15, especially with Jack Antonoff serving as Executive Music Producer on this.
So while “Love, Simon” is far from perfect and is certainly safer than many will argue it is, it is the kind of movie that needs to be supported if we hope to get similar, more risky stories told on bigger scales. While it will always be seen as a stepping stone for LGBT cinema, it should not be forgotten as the incredibly likeable and positive movie that it is.