“Love, Simon” is Unremarkably Queer, Remarkably Mainstream
Two years ago, we had “Moonlight” (2016). Last year, we got “Call Me By Your Name” (2017). This year, we have “Love, Simon” (2018).
“Love, Simon”, directed by Greg Berlanti, is a teen film adapted from the book “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli. It centers on the titular protagonist Simon Spier, a high-school junior living in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. His circumstances are deliberately simple and “easy”: upper-middle class, exceedingly loving and accepting family members, and a diverse yet cohesive friend group. As he repeatedly reminds the audience, “I have a totally, perfectly normal life. I’m just like you.” Except for one thing: he’s in the closet.
He repeats these lines verbatim in an anonymous email to “Blue”, another closeted teen who describes his experience in the closet as a ferris wheel ride on their high school’s confession page. After Blue responds to Simon’s email (where Simon disguises himself as “Jacques”), the two begin to talk on a regular basis, and Simon attempts to figure out Blue’s identity. We get just as invested in the mystery as Simon: we see his interactions with various guys at school, and each one morphs into Blue. His eyes linger on Bram, a popular and charismatic student that dresses up as “Barack Obama on vacation” for Halloween. He rushes outside of the Waffle House to flirt with Lyle, a charming server at the diner. He imagines Cal, the school’s shy piano player, typing out emails and signing them off as Blue.
It’s the kind of representation that the LGBT community lacked for too long. It’s amazingly, groundbreakingly mainstream. It has all the tropes of a teenage movie — the evil blog page, the somewhat homoerotic bullies, and the eccentric authority figure that tries to befriend high school students — but for the first time, the protagonist is gay. It’s far from revolutionary and cutting-edge, but that is what makes the movie unprecedented. By showing the normality of feeling afraid of coming out, even in a situation as ideal as Simon’s, the film is casual and relatable.
What’s problematic about “Love, Simon”, however, is that for a movie that is supposed to be the definition of inclusive, its criticism of certain identities as well as its careless typification is unnerving. For instance, Ms. Albright (Natasha Rothwell), the high school drama teacher, feels like a token sassy black woman that exists to chime in with one liners and provide comedic relief. Then there is the sole openly gay student, Ethan, who is flamboyant and dresses like Oprah. Simon never apologizes for being embarrassed that Ethan is more “effeminate” and open than he is, and Ethan’s character never develops into something other than an underwritten femme foil. And while Simon is noticeably uncomfortable when his father calls another man “fruity,” he doesn’t prove himself to be any less judgmental and berates his classmate for liking magic.
Furthermore, although the movie doesn’t strive to be extraordinary, it risks too little. Not only is Simon one of the most boring protagonists to exist (through no fault of Nick Robinson, who plays him very well), but the queerness in the plot is eroded and the result is a heteronormative love story featuring a gay protagonist. The film never explores the different aspects and questions that come with a queer relationship: how will each partner deal with different levels of comfort of “being out”? How will one partner navigate the other’s unaccepting family or friends? How will the relationship persevere despite the constant ostracism, judgment, and assumptions? Perhaps the most disappointing part is that while Simon tells the audience that “[he] deserves a great love story,” the romance and chemistry in the movie pale in comparison to “Moonlight” and “Call Me By Your Name.” The film is ultimately more about coming out than finding love, as demonstrated by the fact that the main conflict is Simon’s inability to come out on his own terms.
Overall, under Berlanti’s direction, there are many witty and heartfelt scenes that bear resemblance to old teenage classics such as “Pretty in Pink” and “Sixteen Candles.” Simon’s theoretical universe of straight people coming out, despite being an overused parallel, is a funny addition to the movie, as is the zooming in on the Google image of Anderson Cooper when Simon looks up how to dress like a gay man. And though the ferris wheel scene is a bit of a rip-off of an earlier queer film “Garçon Stupide,” it’s still a brilliant moment: the unending ride, suddenly going from top of the world to the bottom serves as a very real metaphor of what it’s like to grapple with one’s identity.
It’s hard not to want some experimentation and introspection, along with more realistic, darker moments of what it is like to be in the closet. At least “Love, Simon,” unlike the majority of LGBT movies, ends on a happy note, which I think is needed at this point in time. It really is just a start — there’s still time left to make 2018 a great year for queer cinema.
Featured image courtesy of wikipedia.org