“Love, Simon” is an important film. It isn’t an exceptionally well-made film, nor is it without a number of tremendously irritating and sometimes nearly crippling flaws. But the film is so important in its message and its significance as a cultural moment that many of its more insignificant flaws fall by the wayside. To acknowledge them is valid, but to harp on them would be beside the point. “Love, Simon” is a vital film.
For those unaware, it’s the feature film adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s young adult book, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.” And it’s significant because it chronicles a high school senior’s tumultuous journey towards coming out as gay, representing one of the first times queerness has been accepted by mainstream Hollywood as a valid center for a film ostensibly aimed at teens.
But therein lies a bit of its problem. Author Becky Albertalli is a heterosexual woman, and in writing the novel from which the movie was adapted she purports to have some degree of knowledge about the queer experience.
The adaptation of literary works by straight people into meaningful and even profound queer films is not an insurmountably difficult task. The recent “Call Me by Your Name” achieved it, even made it look effortless. But that was a film more willing to be liberal in its translation of its source material. It was an independent film written and directed by openly queer men — screenwriter James Ivory and filmmaker Luca Guadagnino — and the finished product felt genuine, meaningful, tender.
By contrast, “Love, Simon” is a film produced by the same Hollywood studio machine that churns out virtually indistinguishable blockbusters all summer, every summer, and I can only imagine that its screenwriters were not given the same degree of freedom.
What’s most questionable is the film seems only occasionally concerned with the personal experience of coming out. Mostly, it feels preoccupied with the way its protagonist’s coming out is taken and acknowledged by his peers. As someone who’s been through every step of that long and arduous process — one which Simon astutely notes shouldn’t even be necessary, prompting one of the film’s most important observations and most forgettable, overwrought gags — I felt this seemed disingenuous.
Thankfully, though, the film’s director, television-showrunner Greg Berlanti is both an openly gay man and an expert at crafting marketable and undeniably entertaining teen soaps.
I note the former because I firmly believe in the importance of queer authorship in queer narrative, and the latter because Berlanti certainly feels like the man for the job.
Though on paper the majority of the ways “Love, Simon” addresses and interacts with queer experiences and storytelling is deeply flawed, Berlanti renders these flaws mostly acceptable because he plays them for high-school, soap-opera-style drama, not for commentary on the LGBT experience. This is a sloppy, melodramatic teen flick that doubles as a coming-out story. Its appeal is predominantly in the representation department, not in the nuances of its message.
“Love, Simon” works so well because Berlanti, the mind behind the CW’s tremendously popular television series "Riverdale," knows precisely what young adults find compelling. He’s proven himself more than capable when it comes to making teen drama both palatable and pleasant, and with “Love, Simon,” he creates an admittedly unoriginal work that functions so well purely because it embraces the tropes and iconography of the teen flick. The film understands that it’s not particularly revelatory, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and is all the better for it.
This is a schlocky, hokey, melodramatic, mostly generic, trite, messy trope-fest, but one that dons the familiar and lovable facets of teen rom-coms and high school soaps to admirable effects. Every frame, every set and every character looks freshly plucked from an Abercrombie and Fitch promotional flier, and there’s not a single plot beat, character trope or stylistic choice that won’t read as familiar to anyone who’s seen the likes of “The Breakfast Club,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or any other such film.
But it works, and even soars, purely because underneath its polished, overproduced exterior is a heart of gold.
It’s hard to hate something with such good intentions, and even harder not to be won over by its warm, infectious charm. I found myself rather unexpectedly invested in its cast of characters, and though the melodrama in which they’re frequently embroiled can grow tiresome, the film’s warmth doesn’t.
This is a film directed by a gay man but adapted from a novel by a straight woman and aimed predominantly at straight moviegoers. But aspects of its coming-out narrative feel stirringly genuine. They did to me, at least, and I think they will feel genuine to others who have shared similar experiences. Its coming-out themes, especially its exploitation of them to fuel the insatiable fires of high school melodrama, can feel frustratingly misguided at times. But at its best, “Love, Simon” feels like a rousing personal work for Berlanti.
He clearly recognizes the universality of coming out — although the circumstances, specific feelings and sensations might be immensely varied for LGBT people of different social standings and in different places, the personal significance is ultimately the same. To me, that felt immensely moving.
Frustrated as I was at times, I found myself undeniably affected by the film’s very existence. Its carefree embracing of teen flick tropes might render it mostly familiar, but it also feels like a move to combat decades worth of queer erasure from mainstream Hollywood.
Finally, there’s a movie for me, and for millions of other LGBT people who’ve experienced similar things. It’s a deeply imperfect one, but also a warm and loving one, and most significantly, it’s there.
I was particularly struck by a line from Simon’s mother shortly after his coming out.
“You get to exhale now, Simon,” she says. “You get to be more you than you have been in a very long time.”
And that’s what “Love, Simon” feels like. A long-awaited, much-deserved exhale. It’s not the be-all-end-all of big screen queer representation, but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s what millions of people worldwide have been yearning for for a very long time.
And I love it, idiosyncrasies, flaws and all.
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