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Love, Simon

I’ll be honest, I was really, REALLY not looking forward to this one. For one thing, we’ve had so many coming-of-age teen dramedies in the past few years that I’m still burned out on them. But more importantly, my first exposure to this movie was through posters like this. Smug posters with groan-worthy puns and trite one-liners about homosexuality. Is this supposed to be witty or clever? It’s 2018, for God’s sake — coming out and being homosexual isn’t nearly as taboo or novel a topic as it used to be.

Then I saw the trailer and it finally hit me: What if that’s the point?

Adult audiences have already sat through umpteen million awards-bait dramas about the plight of homosexuals, but what about teens? What about kids who are still trying to figure themselves out while navigating through so many social expectations in the pressure cooker of high school? Kids dealing with a ton of impulses and hormones that they have no idea what to do with, and no reliable barometer of what could be considered normal or acceptable?

Teenagers discovering their sexuality in this place and time could absolutely use a film with the message that there’s nothing wrong with them. That life will get better, and the world at large (for the most part) is far more accepting toward the LGBT community than it used to be. That there’s a big, wide community of people just like them who are ready to lend support, and their loved ones aren’t going anywhere either.

Love, Simon is all of that and more.

Right off the bat, our titular protagonist (played in a starmaking turn by Nick Robinson) describes himself as a perfectly ordinary kid living a perfectly ordinary white middle-class life. I feel compelled to add that as Simon talks to the other characters, learning more about their own problems and baggage, rejecting the notion of “ordinary people” and “ordinary lives” becomes an important recurring theme.

Anyway, Simon is a high school senior who’s lived through his teenage years as a closeted homosexual. Why hasn’t he come out? Even Simon himself doesn’t really know. Though he does raise an interesting point about the double-standard of coming out as gay — it’s not like anyone ever has to come out as straight, after all. But mostly, Simon would rather try and keep everything the same for as long as he can, because he doesn’t know how to deal with this new and unexplored side of himself.

The plot kicks off with an anonymous social media post in which another local boy — known only as “Blue” — talks about his frustrations as a closeted gay teen. Sensing a kindred spirit, Simon — under the pen name “Jacques” — starts trading emails with Blue. The two confide in each other, providing the solidarity that they both so badly need. And while Simon keeps desperately wondering who this guy is that he’s fallen in love with, there’s a safety in online anonymity that Blue knows better than to give up for either one of them.

Things go sideways when Simon’s emails are intercepted by Martin (Logan Miller), who proceeds to blackmail Simon. And Simon goes along with it, not only to stay in the closet but also to protect the online relationship that’s the only thing keeping him going. After all, if the emails leaked, it might affect Blue as much as it affects Simon.

The movie deserves a ton of credit for addressing social media in an intelligent and even-handed way. The internet can provide a crucial safety net, allowing people to seek support and information they might not otherwise have access to. Unfortunately, anonymity protects victim and assailant in equal measure. Words can hurt as well as heal, especially when words can reach millions of people in the blink of an eye. Ultimately, the internet and meatspace both have their own sets of advantages and drawbacks — in the modern world, it’s crucial to have access to both and the knowledge of how to use them wisely. Moreover, it’s important to remember that online activity has far-reaching real-world consequences, and any hasty decision may cause damage that can’t be undone.

(Side note: Do you have any idea how rare it is to find a Hollywood production that shows a functioning knowledge of how the internet actually works? Seriously, it’s fucked up that in this day and age, internet-savvy movies are the exception instead of the rule.)

On a similar topic, there’s the subject of autonomy and consent, particularly with regards to identity. The decision to publicly identify themselves and come out as gay is an intensely personal one, and no one can force Simon or Blue to make that choice for them. Yes, it’s a more enlightened time, and Simon has loving friends and family in his corner, so being outed may not necessarily be the worst thing in the world, but that’s beside the point. Even if his reasons for staying closeted are petty and unknown even to him, they are still Simon’s reasons and nobody can take that away from him. Ditto for Blue.

Then we have the stuff that gets discussed when Simon is finally out of the closet. Obviously, the blackmail angle introduces a lot of complicating factors that I won’t get into here. But it’s the reactions from Simon’s parents that most merit discussion. Jennifer Garner plays Simon’s mother, who knew for years that Simon was suffering for keeping some secret for so long, and wondered if she made a mistake in not talking with him about that earlier. As for Simon’s father, played by Josh Duhamel, he also gets to second-guess his own abilities as a parent, specifically with regard to all his misplaced attempts at male bonding over the years. How many times had Jack accidentally offended his son or said something in bad taste the whole time his son knew he was gay? All of this stuff makes for incredible drama, and the actors play it beautifully. In particular, Duhamel puts in what’s most likely the best performance of his career.

All of that said, there’s no denying that this is film depicts the absolute best-case scenario. In fact, if it wasn’t for the blackmail subplot, Simon’s coming-out would likely be so smooth and free of drama that we wouldn’t have a movie at all. It’s the sad truth that even today, so many LGBT youth can’t be open with their families, and many are subject to aggressive bullying. And while the filmmakers don’t exactly go into this in graphic detail (which would have wrecked havoc with the tone, let’s be honest) it’s all very explicitly and honestly addressed in the movie. More importantly, the film carries the inspirational message that the worst-case scenario can be overcome, and the best-case scenario is getting more and more common every day.

Everything about this movie feels authentic and heartfelt, which is especially impressive with regards to the more contrived and cliched moments. Even when the plot gets flimsy and things happen because formula dictates, the filmmakers find a way to keep it modern and fresh. Which makes the exceptions all the more painful.

Tony Hale plays a comic relief vice principal who tries way too hard to be hip with his students. His whole performance is forced and cartoonish in a way that’s terribly jarring next to the relatable honesty of his students. And it would be one thing if this was an all an act that the character was putting on in a misguided attempt at connecting with his students, but no, we can clearly see that this is how he is. It’s pathetic, ridiculous, and wholly unnecessary.

But then we have Martin, who’s on a whole ‘nother level. I get what the filmmakers were going for, showing someone so caught up in his own self-entitlement that he acts without regard to anyone else. But in practice, the character is so ridiculously over-the-top that there’s no way to connect with him. I know the character is supposed to be unsympathetic, but the movie as a whole would have been so much stronger if he was symbolic of an unsympathetic yet common and visible worldview instead of… well, this unfunny cardboard atrocity. He works far more efficiently as a plot device and a thematic vehicle than a flesh-and-blood human being. And when Martin has so many scenes opposite characters who are better written and better acted, it becomes so much more obvious how weak and awful this character is.

Still, I want to stress emphatically that all the other teen actors in this cast are incredible. Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Keiynan Lonsdale, Clark Moore, all these and others are utterly fantastic. And I can’t say enough great things about Nick Robinson, who totally sells this character and every step of his journey.

On a couple of miscellaneous notes, there’s a subplot concerning the school play, and I have no idea who would possibly consider “Cabaret” as suitable high school material. Though otherwise, the music here is fucking awesome. The soundtrack is loaded from start to finish with a fantastic selection of songs, and every single pick was a joy to listen to.

Love, Simon doesn’t get everything right, but it succeeds with flying colors where it really matters. It’s a deeply poignant snapshot of living as a teenager in the here and now, given how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. As a deeply heartfelt and superbly acted movie about identity in an online world and the diminishing — yet still clear and present — need for caution in coming out, this is absolutely a movie that we need right now.

This one is strongly recommended. The soundtrack alone merits a DVD viewing at the bare minimum.

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