Directed by Greg Berlanti (2018)
by Hunter Bush
My pithy review of Love, Simon is that it's a step in the right direction, but doesn't exactly put its best foot forward.
I'm not here to besmirch anyone having a good time and I don't want to belabor the point, so I'll put all my problems with Love, Simon up front; while its message is an important one, as a movie, it's pretty average. 20th Century Fox's big talking point is that it's the first major studio romantic comedy to feature a gay lead, and while that is definitely a big deal, I wish that honor had gone to a better overall movie.
Maybe this is the cynic in me, but I can't help but think this has to do with Fox's involvement. If they're going to put a teen movie with a gay lead (character) on screens nationwide, it better appeal to audiences nationwide.
Don't get me wrong, this will be a very important film to many kids who end up seeing it. Honestly, how could it not? By making your lead character, the incredibly usual-looking Nick Robinson, deal with his uncertainty and hesitation at the prospect of coming out, Love, Simon helps to normalize that selfsame prospect for its viewers. That is a great and necessary thing, but doesn't excuse the film from not living up to its potential. Dramatically, Love, Simon is almost bloodless, repeatedly pulling its punches when dealing with, well, almost anything.
Simon is a painfully average teen (mass-marketably so, one could even say), in almost every way except for his sexual preference: we are told there is only one openly gay student in his entire school. Then one day, another student anonymously posts on the school's message boards that he too is gay and Simon begins an anonymous email chain with the mysterious "Blue". Eventually like all fools in love, Simon gets careless, leaving his email open on a school computer where it is found by the perennially trying too hard Martin (Logan Miller) who, long story short, blackmails Simon into helping Martin win the heart of one of Simon's friends.
A lot of concepts are touched on, by which I mean "mentioned", without actually being fully dealt with in any meaningful way. These concepts include: the idea that Simon's sexuality is not set in stone; that sex itself is a natural part of life and shouldn't be something we're ashamed of; that everyone gets to choose when and how they address their sexuality; and that no matter how easy it may seem for someone else, chances are it isn't. Each of these is given a line or two of dialogue and then dropped to get back to the familiar teen rom-com stuff. The most disappointing instance of this is a moment in the vice principal's waiting room where Simon talks to the only openly gay student, Ethan (Clark Moore) about how easy it seemed he had it.
Clark Moore is a standout for me. His performance as Ethan, though relegated to third tier supporting character, shows real strength as he out-insults every bigot and smiles through it all. Ethan was a character not present in Becky Albertalli's book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, on which Love, Simon is based. Knowing now that he was created specifically for the movie, I really don't understand why he wasn't given a larger speech in the principal's office scene. Ethan starts to tell Simon that it isn't as easy as it looks, that when he and his mother have a weekly family dinner with her parents, she lies about "all the girls (Ethan) has been seeing" and though he begrudgingly accepts her reasoning for this ("you should hear her voice when she talks about those girls"). It's almost heartbreaking, and would really stick the landing if we didn't almost immediately end the interaction in favor of a comedic vice principal-lead conflict resolution scene between Ethan and Simon and two bullies who'd harassed them.
A similar thing happens when Simon returns to school after having been outed online. He walks in to find seemingly the whole school gawking at him. The vice principal (Tony Hale) who is usually cracking jokes and trying to relate to the students is, for once, somewhat reserved. When Simon walks up to him, rather than making small talk about sneakers, he simply asks how Simon is doing. That moment, where a character shows you they have heretofore unseen depths to their concern, could have been very affecting, but it's quickly short-circuited by a low-hanging fruit "I'm not gay" joke that left me cold.
Honestly, a lot of the comedy in Love, Simon failed to land during my viewing, and not just with me. I was fortunate enough to see the film with what (at times) sounded like several hundred arts high school students (though it was probably about 40). There were some laughs at jokes I thought were eye-rollingly lame, which I'll be honest, made me momentarily wonder if I was now "too old" to "get it". Luckily, Natasha Rothwell (as drama teacher Ms. Albright) was there to prove me wrong as she repeatedly got the biggest laughs from not just the kids but me as well. She's my Love, Simon comedy MVP.
The good in Love, Simon is largely thanks to it's supporting cast. Simon's parents (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner) are actually depicted as somewhat multi-dimensional and his circle of close friends, soccer-obsessed Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), *best* best friend Leah (Katherine Langeford) and recent transfer student Abby (Alexandra Shipp) all feel like real people, largely avoiding becoming "the ___ one" (a designation many teen movie supporting characters fall into) thanks in no small way to the actors' performances. Shipp especially gives a nicely nuanced performance, though to be fair she gets a whole diner scene devoted to exploring her character while the others don't. Even blackmailer Martin avoids coming off as entirely despicable, despite both his actions and the cringe-worthy desperation Logan Miller imbues him with.
My biggest hurdle, performance-wise, is Nick Robinson. Despite Love, Simon largely being a character study of him, aided by his narration (in the form of emails), he came off as almost as much of a cipher as Ansel Elgort's Baby in last year's Baby Driver. I don't think this is through any fault of Robinson's, rather I get the feeling that it was a calculated decision on Fox's part to make Simon a blank slate and thus easier to identify with.
The fingerprints of "Big Studio" are all over Love, Simon actually and it kind of makes no sense. Most of the third act is Simon retaking control of his personal narrative (him yelling at Martin in the school parking lot for taking it away in the first place is another of those scenes I thought was going to go somewhere) and coming out to his family. Throughout the entirety of the movie we've been assured (by Simon) that his parents are super cool and that he isn't worried about what their reaction will be, but then they briefly play a "maybe Dad *isn't* so cool with it" card that I just didn't understand. Nothing really comes of it except one more dramatic scene in what amounts to a gauntlet of them, all trying to wring one more tear from your eye. That's a lot of heavily dramatic scenes for something we're all calling a romantic comedy, but at the same time, there is zero dramatic tension. It really does a disservice to the movie itself, not just because of the stealth tonal whiplash, but also by taking time away from what should be the central concern of the film after Simon comes out: figuring out who his anonymous crush, Blue, really is.
The romance is, no pun intended, the heart of a romantic comedy. In the similar "we've fallen in love entirely anonymously via email" film You've Got Mail, a lot of screen time is devoted to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks individually, to help justify to the audience how and why they might fall for each other. Conversely, we get a good enough idea of who Blue is almost entirely through his half of their emails. Enough so, at least, when Simon declares that he loves Blue, you don't roll your eyes right out of your head.
Those moments, the ones that focused on the culmination of the romance angle, received the biggest pops from the audience in my viewing. Clearly that is what the audience wants to see, so it's a shame that those moments are pushed to the very end of the film while so much of the prime third act real estate is spent on toothless drama.
Before my screening, a rep for 20th Century Fox said that Love, Simon is "different from any other movie you've seen" and that is just not true. Still, it's an enjoyable-enough movie that marks a progressive moment for major studio films.