"I'm just like you," Simon Spiers (Nick Robinson) says at the beginning of Love, Simon, Greg Berlanti's lovely and endearing dramedy about a teenage boy's coming out journey.
Those words, spoken by a white teen living in a seemingly perfect suburb — the kind where friends hang out at Waffle House after rehearsing for the school production of Cabaret, and then head home for dinner with their nice, liberal parents, and their wannabe gourmet chef sibling — could really be lifted directly from any average high school movie. (In Mean Girls parlance, Simon and his friends lie somewhere along the intersection between Preps and Sexually Active Band Geeks — mildly popular, cool enough not to care, but still wearing clothes purchased by, or under the supervision of a parent.)
But that universality is exactly what makes this particular tale groundbreaking: Simon is just like you. His experience as a gay teen struggling to come out to his friends and family is one that has finally been normalised enough to become fodder for a mass-appeal teen coming-of-age movie.
Adapted from Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA best-seller, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the movie's action takes place during Simon's final year in high school, the last few months of feeling like everyone knows your name, not to mention that one weird thing you did when you were 11. It's a time of change — exciting, but also scary. This, Simon explains, is partly why he's been so reluctant to come out. He's known he's gay for a while now (since his first sexy dream about Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter, in fact, ensuring the audience knows that this is a firmly millennial tale), but wants to hold on to those last moments of normalcy and childhood for a while longer.
Still, the opportunity for him to connect to another arises when one student (codename "Blue") posts an anonymous confession on the school's gossip blog (think Whisper meets Crazy Days and Nights) about the difficulties of being gay and closeted. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon hell-bent on discovering the kid's identity, Simon creates his own fake Gmail address (codename "Jacques,"as in Jacques A Dit, the French equivalent of Simon Says) and reaches out. A pen-pal romance is born, but things get complicated when someone threatens to out Simon on that same platform.
In many ways, Love, Simon feels like the natural follow up to 2017's Netflix hit, 13 Reasons Why. First, because breakout star Katherine Langford stars as Simon's best friend Leah, who feels like what Hannah Baker could have become if she'd been accepted rather than cast out. Miles Heizer, who played Alex on 13 Reasons Why, also makes an appearance, as the long-suffering pianist accompanying his classmates' terrible rendition of "Wilkommen." And, much like the latter, Love, Simon reflects on the way teenagers communicate with each other when their parents aren't watching, and the potential consequences of such interactions.
Berlanti, who got his start writing for Dawson's Creek, and has created and produced some of the best teen dramas of the last two decades (Everwood, Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, and Riverdale, to name a few), clearly knows his niche. Robinson (Everything, Everything; Jurassic World) is perfectly cast as the handsome — in a non-threatening kind of way — average boy. Nothing about his appearance or demeanour notes him as outwardly gay, which helps dispel flamboyant stereotypes: gay men come in all shapes and sizes. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are the best looking super-parents that he deserves, and manage to make the perfect home life narrative endearing rather than sappy. (Garner's end speech will no doubt get compared to Michael Stuhlbarg's tear-jerker from Call Me By Your Name, which is both apt, and deeply unfair.)
Still, the movie isn't perfect: the sheer number of 2017-specific cultural references will almost definitely date Love, Simon in the future. What's more, Simon's idea of the relatable teenage experience ("We do everything friends do: we drink way too much iced coffee while gorging on carbs") smacks of immense privilege. The casting of three actors of colour (Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Keiynan Lonsdale) in major roles is noteworthy and refreshing, but the post-racial upper middle class community depicted in the film makes for a missed opportunity to take a more intersectional approach. And without minimising the pain and psychological toll of concealing one's true self, the reality is that Simon faces relatively low stakes: his family will undoubtedly accept him for who he is, as will his friends.
But Love, Simon's greatest triumph is that it manages to highlight the small ways in which even the most accepting and open-minded among us can make coming out difficult, even in 2018. It's in the small, almost absent-minded put-downs, like when Jack (Duhamel), the same man who sweetly — if ineffectively — wants to commemorate his love for his wife with a romantic slideshow, casually calls the Bachelor's behaviour "clearly gay." It's a happy coincidence that the film will be released in cinemas only weeks after the reboot of Queer Eye hit Netflix to wide acclaim. That show also features a man hesitating about how to come out to his stepmum, worried that to do so would change their relationship. It's easy to assume that these issues are a thing of the past, especially in more liberal circles, and a difficult balancing act to nail: dramatise things too much, and you risk de-normalising gay teenagers; make things too easy, and you minimise the significance of coming out.
Love, Simon toes the line, and the end result is well worth watching.
Catch Love, Simon in the cinema on 6th April.