Love, Simon is the latest film in the past few years to revive the reputation of high school coming-of-age films, but, revolving around a closeted gay protagonist falling in love with an anonymous fellow high school student, it is a necessary refresh which forefronts LGBTQ issues within the trusted genre formula.
Simon Spear (Nick Robinson) is a high school senior with a tight group of three friends, Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), who spend most of their time together either grabbing coffee or sitting in a booth at the Waffle House. He has the perfect family: a sister he actually likes (Talitha Bateman) and two liberal, and very much in love, parents (Jennifer Garner & Josh Duhamel) who he labels using the high school tropes ‘awesomely handsome quarterback’ and ‘valedictorian’. However, he keeps the fact he is gay a secret, and Love, Simon is the story of how he falls in love with an unknown classmate over email and how that disrupts his plan of coming out to his close friends and family once he reaches the safer environment of college.
High school movies were much derided for the first seventeen years of this century. Younger fans (at release) and many Epigram readers may have a certain sentiment towards films like The Princess Diaries (2001), A Cinderella Story (2004), She’s the Man (2006), and Wild Child (2008), but the critics and older audiences rightfully trashed them for their lack of credibility in all aspects. The cringey dialogue, the ignorance of cinematography, the transparent acting, and the implausible character/plot development all contributed to the downfall of a genre. All those who had seen the ‘80s classics yearned for new films in the ilk of The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Say Anything… (1989), and it seemed the last, great, high school movie would be 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) at the end of the 20th century.
The rebuilding has been slow. Every couple of years, an anomaly would emerge from the drivel. Mean Girls (2005), Juno (2007), Easy A (2010), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and The Spectacular Now (2013) all battled the ailing reputation of their settings to receive positive reviews and Juno even won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2008. Fast forward to 2016, and a low-key release called The Edge of Seventeen (2016), achieved a distinctly fresh 95% on the film review website, Rotten Tomatoes. Then, earlier this year, the resurgence of high school movies was unanimously approved by audiences and critics alike with the reception of the Greta Gerwig tour de force, Lady Bird (2017).
The popularity was swung by a left-field decision by box office hoarders, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By taking the new Spider-Man reboot back to its comic book roots and teenage hero Peter Parker back to his natural habitat in the American education system, the MCU not only created another hugely successful film, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), but they unearthed the love for high quality high school movies across the masses and masses of people who saw it at the cinema.
Now, in that short history lesson of the high school genre, 16 films were cited, all with different influences, stories, and contributors, spanning 33 years of political change. They all shared one common factor, however. Not one of those films, despite all featuring romances, had a gay protagonist. Not one. This is why Love, Simon is an important film.
Love, Simon, above all, is a well executed high school movie. Director Greg Berlanti is a popular figure for young adult TV fans, having created the trendy Riverdale (2017-) and every intertwining series of the Arrowverse, which brings DC comics to the screen including Arrow (2012-), The Flash (2014-), Supergirl (2015-), and Legends of Tomorrow (2016-). The step up to directing a cinematic adaptation of a novel from TV adaptations of comic books is significant, and Berlanti does a good job of sticking to the textbook established by the aforementioned back-catalogue of the genre.
Riverdale itself proves the notable influence in updating the formula, and Love, Simon has a similarly integral, indie pop soundtrack which features Bleachers, The 1975, and Troye Sivan. The seamless integration of technology, emails, Facetime, and the anonymous, online platform for confessions, Creek’s Secrets, used by members of Simon’s school, is a modern day challenge also overcome in Berlanti’s hit show on Netflix. Fourteen minutes into the film, an anonymous student, he calls himself Blue, comes out as gay on Creek’s Secrets and shocks the student population at Simon’s school into inquisition. It also inspires Simon to set up his own anonymous GMail to send an email to Blue, and they connect on an emotional level through their heartfelt, digital exchanges without ever knowing the other’s identity or appearance.
The plot unravels when Martin (Logan Miller), a cast member with Simon (Robinson) in the school play, discovers the emails on a library computer and pathetically blackmails him by threatening to leak them on Creek’s Secret unless Simon can set him up with one of his best friends Abby (Shipp), whose friendship with Nick (Lendeborg Jr.) is finely poised to become romantic. Suddenly, Simon has to meddle with his friend’s lives in order to keep the lid on his ‘huge ass secret’. Despite his insensitive and desperate behaviour, Martin remains likeable and is the main source of humour within the school environment.
The many young cast members produce solid, if not boundary pushing, performances, including smaller roles for the recognisable faces of Katherine Langford as Leah, Miles Heizer as Cal, who played Hannah and Alex in the first season of 13 Reasons Why (2017), and Keiynan Lonsdale as Bram, who plays Wally West AKA Kid Flash in The Flash (2015-). The central role of Simon is a measured performance by Nick Robinson, otherwise known for starring in The Kings of Summer (2013) and blockbuster Jurassic World (2015). Robinson’s performance emphasises an important theme of Love, Simon that there is no set personality traits for gay men, especially with regards to the traditional, camp demeanour.
The intelligence of small details and pop culture references helps elevate this romantic mystery. Simon uses the moniker of Jacques, from the French game Jacques A Dit, translated to English as Simon Says. The hilariously told backstory of Simon’s sexual realisation features dreaming of Daniel Radcliffe and an obsession with Panic! At The Disco because of lead singer Brendon Urie, whereas Blue’s features the ever present Jon Snow (the Game of Thrones one, not the Channel 4 news presenter). It is at times a little unbelievable for 17-18 year olds, though, with Halloween costumes including Simon and Leah as John Lennon and Yono Oko, Martin as a Freudian slip, and Bram as post-presidency Barack Obama. While the costumes are smart, and will be useful options come October, it is a bugbear of modern cinema to see twenty-somethings playing characters misrepresenting those nearly ten years their junior.
The best one-liners come from the older actors and mostly surround the dramatic irony of Simon’s sexuality, especially those delivered by Josh Duhamel, who plays Jack, Simon’s father. Tony Hale is another highlight, bringing his wacky humour from Arrested Development (2003-) to the role of over-revealing, straight, Tinder using teacher, Vice-Principal Worth. Two concept scenes - almost standalone comedy sketches - stand out from the traditional narrative structure and occur one after another about halfway through the 110 minute runtime. The first is Simon imagining his three closest friends each coming out as straight to their parents in a melodramatic inversion of reality, followed by his imagining of being an ultra-camp, super out there personality dancing outside his dream LA college with rainbow flags draping over its buildings- a direct reference to the surreal dancing scene featured in quirky rom-com 500 Days of Summer (2009).
Otherwise, Love, Simon has an expected, idealistic, and emotional final act like many movies before it, as well as a crowd-pleasing reveal of Blue right at the very end. But while it all feels familiar, it marks the first mainstream gay romance to be the focal point of a high school coming-of-age film, and, thankfully, it adds to the recent list of high quality films in the genre.