Film review: Love, Simon (Director: Greg Berlanti)
By Sascha Krieger
First of all: Love, Simon’s greatest achievement is that it was made. Believe it or not, the film is Hollywood’s first teenage film slash comedy with a gay protagonist. Ever. Its director Greg Berlanti has been a trailblazer in bringing gay topics to screens outside the „indie“ field, starting with the wildly successful 1990s teen TV blockbuster Dawson’s Creek, where as the showrunner he insisted in introducing a gay couple, even threatening to resign if it wasn’t included. Now he’s opened teen popcorn cinema to the fact that a significant percentage of its depicted group – and target group – loves members of their own sex. The fact that this is worth mentioning and even regarded as revolutionary in 2018, is not something to be proud about for Hollywood. That it has finally been done is at least a silver lining.
Love, Simon is in many ways your average teenage romantic comedy. There are all the usual set pieces: a Halloween party and a football game, a goofy vice-principal and a robust drama teacher, an overbearing but loving mother and a slightly infantile but even more loving father, betrayal, bullies and blackmailing villains and best friends secretly in love, etc. With one twist: the title character is gay and not out. At all. Simon, played by Nick Robinson with a sometimes irritating mixture of overly mature distance and slightly exaggerated bewilderment though mostly hitting more or less the right tones of a somewhat understated coming of age process, discovers an anonymous post on a school blog by a fellow student who proclaims to be gay. They start emailing and Simon embarks on a search for the mysterious „Blue“ before everything becomes even more complicated by his being outed involuntarily. This being a teen comedy, there is a happy ending of the cheesiest kind and everything is well.
As it is anyway. Apart from its rather stale and well-tested plot, the annoyingly sterile genre routines and stereotypical characters and the way too cowardly narration constantly reassuring the audience that the gay boy is „just like you“ (although there is a nice twist in which those words are re-directed at „Blue“), perhaps the film’s biggest flaw tis that it’s ultimately way too harmless. Everybody is much too nice and understanding, the conflicts rather petty, the humour tame, even the anti-gay bullies aren’t threatening in the least. This way, the coming out is rather smooth sailing or would be if Simon wasn’t complicating things by being too scared himself, a flaw the film clearly frowns upon. While this might be intended at reassuring gay teens watching it that, as the Trevor Project puts it, „it gets better“, it also somewhat relativises and minimises the true risks and pain of this brand of coming of age, just stopping short of calling its protagonist silly.
As a film, Love, Simon, isn’t particularly interesting, writing, cinematography and directing playing it safe, avoiding any risk or artistic ambition. Which may be the best thing about the film: by treating it exactly like any other teen love comedy – at least for most of it and specifically excluding the ridiculous and rather cringeworthy ending – it makes the gayness of the title character rather unspectacular, normal, not much to speak of (at the aforementioned price of somewhat devaluing his own self-discovery process). It also succeeds in establishing a gay teen as the legitimate hero of this kind of mainstream, box-office, popcorn fare, opening doors in this genre that one can only hope many more filmmakers dare walk through. And when they do it can only be hoped that they pay back this trailblazer by being more daring, more ambitious and ultimately better.