What makes Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon so great is its seeming lack of specialness. It is an average coming of age movie about an average teen who happens to be gay. Historically this is the first of its kind from a major studio.
But again I return to its averageness. Gay characters in movies often come prepackaged with special or magical abilities, both literal and metaphorical. Often times they are the shoulder to cry on, the center of a drama infested universe of their own making, super talented-usually in a skill largely perceived as effeminate, or tragically doomed to be murdered or commit suicide.
Love, Simon is miraculous because Simon (Nick Robinson) is just a teeanger. He’s not super smart, he’s not a whiz at fashion, or especially witty. Simon is just a regular, mostly sweet, boring kid. If Simon has any skill it’s being the boy in charge of carpooling his friends to school. His friends, likewise, are average and boring.
Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) is a soccer player who’s good but not great or hoping for a full scholarship to his college of choice, who Simon has known since the beginning of time. Leah (Katherine Langford), another life long friend, doesn’t seem to have any real special interest outside of being a teenager. The newest member of their group is Abby (Alexandra Shipp), who just moved into town and is busy just trying to figure out who she is.
Berlanti and his screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, who adapted the book by Becky Albertalli called Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, surround Simon with people just as ordinary as he is. The relatability to Simon, his friends, and the rest of the characters comes from Berlanti and his writers eschewing the very modern idea that require teenagers be special in order have stories told about them.
So much of why Love, Simon works is because of Simon’s own sort of shapelessness. The only thing that separates Simon from his family and friends is his gayness. Which brings us to another thing Love, Simon does without ever beating us over the head. It shows, very subtly but completely, the toxicity and poison that being held in the closet can do to one’s self worth and moral compass.
Simon himself has only realized he’s gay a little bit before the film starts. One day Leah texts him and tells him to check the school version of a gossip column as it seems one of their fellow students, known only as Blue, has come out as gay. Simon reaches out to him under an assumed name of Jaques. The two develop a pen pal relationship and before long Simon is falling for Blue.
It’s important to remember that Simon is from a loving and supportive family and has loving and understanding friends. Berlanti and his writers drill this home because much like understanding that “Marley was dead to begin with,” understanding this basic fact makes it all the more gut wrenching when Martin (Logan Miller) enters Simon’s life. Martin stumbles upon Simon’s emails and then blackmails him to get a date with Abby.
Martin pressures Simon with threatening to expose him but never in a “sinister” way, at least in his mind. He doesn’t see himself as the villain, after all he just wishes to win Abby’s heart. Years of cinema and literature have told him, the typical straight white male, that if his intentions are pure then anything he does in pursuit of that is justifiable. At times Martin even mistakenly believes Simon to be his friend despite his repeated threats of outing him.
Berlanti shows how Simon’s fear of discovery pollutes everything he does. While at a a party with his friends, Nick confides in Simon his feelings for Abby. Simon then lies about Abby, claiming she’s into older men and that she already has a boyfriend. Simon is so desperate to preserve his secret that he even tells Nick to go after Leah, saying she’s been nursing a crush on him for years. All to protect himself and Blue.
Simon and Blue are not alone though, as there is one other out boy in the school, Ethan (Clark Moore). But Love, Simon isn’t about how cool it is to have an out gay black kid who’s for the most part accepted by his peers. It’s about how terrifying change is. The number one thing Simon fears the most is the idea that things will change once people know.
They do. Eventually Martin outs Simon so to avert attention off himself. Simon’s friends are rightfully angry for having been lied to and manipulated. But we get the sense that they may not understand the depth of Simon’s fear and anxiety as the motives for his actions. A couple of jocks get up on a table in the cafeteria dressed as Ethan and Simon and act out a high school boy’s juvenile, but no less offensive or hurtful interpretation of ‘butt sex.’ Berlanti swings his camera over to Simon’s friends as we see them begin to understand what Simon was afraid of. No one knows more than the queer community just how far we haven’t come in how we treat them.
Afterwards, Martin chases Simon down to apologize. “I didn’t even know people still did that!” His apology means nothing to Simon, as well it shouldn’t. Martin has stolen agency from Simon’s life that he can never really take back.
Instead, a knot grows in our stomachs as Simon’s journey to acceptance and self discovery goes along. But it’s never overwhelming and depressing because Simon is just a wonderful, scared, and sweet human being. Love, Simon never feels gloomy or depressing, just the opposite. Berlanti allows Love, Simon to be uplifting and joyous.
Berlanti’s characters may be boring but they’re not bland. On the contrary, they are relatable and recognizable. Nick is a sweet guy but not the brightest, however his dimness is never unrealistic and is never cruelly mocked. Berlanti has a great love and affection for his characters from the charismatic and dizzying energetic Abby, to the morally reprehensible and all too relatable, for me, Martin.
Robinson has a fine career as a leading man ahead of him. He has an affableness and a openness about him that grants us easy access us to his thoughts. Most characters who dress up as John Lennon for Halloween would come off as insufferable. But Robinson’s Simon doesn’t, perhaps because he doesn’t lurch into diatribes or monologues about the Beatles. His Simon is down-to-earth and Robinson never feels as if he’s playing Simon too broad.
But Shipp’s Abby nearly steals the entire movie. She has a way of injecting whatever scene she’s in with joy and a palpable energy. By design she’s meant to be ‘the fun one’ as a contrast to the down-to-earth, quiet Simon. Still, Abby never becomes grating or over the top. Her energy and laughter feels natural and sincere.
It’s not often that I cry watching a movie about teenagers, but here we are. I’m happy to say these were not tears of pain or sadness. These were tears of empathy, happiness, and me just being a sucker for people being good to one another.
Love, Simon is so great because it has a bone deep understanding of what being a teenager is: terrifying. It doesn’t break new ground cinematically, but it does treat its subject matter head-on and with more empathy and love than most studio films about teenagers do.