The magic of Love, Simon, which played at Images last week, is that it is groundbreaking and entirely ordinary at the same time. The first major studio romantic comedy to feature a gay protagonist is, in many ways, a quintessential teenage rom-com that inhabits its genre unapologetically. The story, meanwhile, focuses on a young gay man struggling to come out — hardly outside the box for LGBTQ-focused media. What elevates it as a film and a cultural moment, however, is how its two familiar ingredients combine to form an emotional core that makes it worthy, flaws and all, of its unprecedented reach.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the Greg Berlanti-directed film follows Simon Spear (Nick Robinson), a high school senior in suburban Atlanta. Simon’s otherwise happy life, with an off-beat but loving family and tight-knit circle of friends, is weighed down by his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality in an environment where being openly gay is rare and rife with uncertainty. When a popular school message board receives an anonymous post from another student expressing the same dilemma and providing an email contact, Simon strikes up a secret correspondence with “Blue” and, in the process of growing close with someone in a way he never has before, begins to fall in love.
The crux of the story – Simon trying to find out who Blue is – is given a dangerous twist when his correspondence is discovered by Martin (Logan Miller), a character with a toxic combination of cloying dweebishness and violent entitlement. Martin threatens to leak Simon’s emails and out him to the entire school unless Simon helps him make romantic advances with Abby (Alexandra Shipp), one of Simon’s best friends. Also complicating matters is the tangle of secret attractions within Simon’s group of friends; newcomer Abby, long time best friend Leah (Katherine Langford) and Cristiano Ronaldo-obsessed soccer player Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) all have to navigate through their own teenage problems without being aware of how Simon’s secret and Martin’s manipulations are affecting them all.
What makes Love, Simon’s set-up more than just a genre cliché and its representation more than a novelty item is how much heart it carries from start to finish; it goes for tears as much as laughs and easily elicits both. Robinson’s performance as both protagonist and point-of-view character masterfully captures the beat-by-beat intensity of high school drama, where the smallest moments are magnified and the biggest moments made earthshaking by the messiness of the feelings involved. Sequences in which new pieces of evidence lead Simon to imagine several different students as potentially being Blue keep the audience on its toes, knowing that the camera speaks for Simon and isn’t necessarily going to interpret any particular scene unbiasedly. The montages in which Simon engages with Blue as the truest version of himself make the pain of having to hide in public all the more palpable.
The emotional payoffs are consistently powerful, helped along by Shipp’s standout performance as a deeply supportive friend who won’t settle for anything less in return. Moreover, Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel star as Simon’s imperfect but loving parents who face the challenge of making Simon’s home life safe for his true self in a way it has never quite been.
When the film comes up short, it does so because it runs out of time. The conclusions to the character arcs for Simon’s friends could have used more room to breathe, and the transition from Simon’s lowest point to the triumphant climax is similarly rushed. Martin’s portrayal is also worryingly close to that of a pitiable but well-intentioned loser who gets carried away instead of the insidious abuser that he is; his dimensionality ultimately serves the story well, but the film never finds the space to truly reckon with how toxic and violent his actions are, nor how woefully inadequate his attempts at self-improvement are in comparison.
Fortunately, Love, Simon makes sure those shortcomings aren’t the last impression it makes; its climax is both a masterstroke of emotion-driven storytelling and a true watershed moment that has the potential to be a life-changing moment for so many who have never seen themselves on screen before. When everything falls away and the credits roll on a high school love story between two young men, it leaves a distinct sense of satisfaction at having witnessed something that is completely normal and utterly magical.