“I’m just like you,” the hunky Simon of Love, Simon insists in this likable film’s first moments. He declares this over cheery footage, bright as commercials for laundry detergent, of the putative everyteen beaming with his family in a large but unfussy suburban home or cruising with his high school crew to the coffee shop.
Just like you.
You might balk that you don’t drive a nice used Subaru, that your little sister doesn’t whip up elaborate breakfasts with blueberry confits, that your mother, bless her, simply does not look like Jennifer Garner. You might point out that Hollywood’s idea of what America looks like has always left too many Americans out. The good news about Love, Simon is that there’s a savvy sneakiness to the filmmakers’ vision of our national ordinariness. For decades, Hollywood and politicians have promised that the country’s heart and backbone and moral center is a robust suburban middle class. This vital and funny teen coming-out comedy from 20th Century Fox never undercuts that promise. Instead, it adds to it. Here is a movie made for and about the people who believe they are the essence of American normalcy, a movie that dutifully flatters and celebrates them even as it works to expand who that normalcy actually includes.
It seems to be saying, ever so gently, “You want to believe that America looks like the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s, or the Father of the Bride movies of the ‘90s? Great, go for it – but, oh, by the way, the hero now can be a gay dude, with best friends of all races, and not one is a Long Duk Long-like joke.”
Even the villain of the piece, a film-geek white boy who abuses the closeted hero online, is accorded humanity. Love, Simon is an empathetic bliss-out, a fleet and sweet comedy/romance/mystery where the stakes couldn’t be higher — it deals with the public exposure of teenagers’ secrets! — but also where every high school crisis or embarrassment passes with time because people, it turns out, are fundamentally decent. That makes it a welcome rebuke to the tribal assumptions of the previous generation’s teen comedies, where the jocks hated the geeks who hated the theater people, and the lines between factions couldn’t be blurred. Outside of a pair of bullies who get soundly dressed down, everyone in Love, Simon is happily into their own thing and open to everyone else’s. If what teens watch on their screens shapes future teen behavior, Love, Simon’s utopian society is a gift to the teens of the future who may grow up on it — and to anyone who has to deal with teens.
The leads, a squad of young actors sharing too much gorgeousness to come from the same high school, are dressed slightly down to suggest some socioeconomic reality. What matters, though, is how they click and laugh together; how they rattle through Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s dialogue as if the words are just coming to them; how when Simon picks up his pals for school in the morning they each bound into the car already chattering, as if yesterday’s conversation has never let up. It hasn’t, of course: They’re all connected via their phones and laptops, so everyone finds out every key plot point at the same time no matter where they are. But even if they don’t have news to share when together, they bubble over with excitable fellowship. This is the most irresistible portrait of teen friendship this side of Lady Bird.
Those bonds get tested, of course, once the plot kicks in. Simon (stolid, ruminative Nick Robinson) trusts his crew with everything but his big secret: that he’s gay. He’s not known this for too long himself, and he’s uncertain how to talk about it, especially with Leah (Katherine Langford), his closest and oldest friend, a young woman whose romantic yearning for him he convinces himself not to notice. (Director Greg Berlanti and the screenwriters ace the aching pain of those go-nowhere crushes that teens just soak in.)
A student calling himself “Blue” writes a post about being closeted and lonely on a gossip site dedicated to their school. Simon, thunderstruck, begins a correspondence with Blue. In brisk, gripping scenes, they reveal everything to each other — except their names. We watch Simon agonize waiting for an email back; we see Simon and Blue encourage each other to open up, to consider revealing themselves to each other and the world — maybe at this upcoming Halloween costume party?
Based on a novel by Becky Albertalli, Love, Simon introduces some enduring elements of Shakespearean comedy. At the party, Simon is curious about every dude in a costume, wondering if he might be Blue — if masks can slip and identities can get revealed. Meanwhile, weaselly thespian Martin (Logan Miller) has discovered Simon’s secrets and has threatened to reveal Simon and Blue’s emails to the school unless Simon helps the weasel win the heart of Abby (Alexandra Shipp), a dear friend of Simon’s.
The cast and filmmakers stir these elements of secrets, lies, masks and matchmaking for all that they’re worth, prizing telling details and piercing observation over broad comedy. Relationships that in the film’s first moments seemed simple, copy-pasted from other movies, prove prickly and complex. Witness Leah tending to a drunk Simon after a party, coming as close as she can to revealing her love to him without actually saying the words. Watch Simon’s parents (Garner and Josh Duhamel) downstairs, take great pride in not being upset that the first time their boy came home shitfaced he didn’t drive. And when Simon finally reveals his sexuality to one of his friends, the scene plays as tender and welcoming, a warm moment of closeness.
Coming out to his parents — and then to the world — proves more fraught, of course. His liberal family is thrown by the news, and they pass several days in strained silence. But eventually both parents get their scene of proud acceptance. They’re big Hollywood scenes, of course, with speeches and tears. Love, Simon isn’t frank or revelatory in the vein of the best queer cinema. It avoids much talk of arousal, and it delays and delays its first same-sex kiss and then scores it to onlookers’ applause just in case audiences aren’t sure how to feel about it. This is mainstream crowd-pleasing studio filmmaking, so, of course, it’s in some ways behind the times. It’s also, like most studio filmmaking, an example: Here is a way you can be, it says to kids and to parents, to everyone who still believes there’s a median American normal.