Cinema Dispatch: Love, Simon

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Love Simon and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox

Directed by Greg Berlanti

Does anyone else think we’re at the point where we need to come up with a better way of describing movies like this one other than “Like a John Hughes movie”?  As much as those movies are a touchstone in popular culture, the phrase a bit played out at this point, and on top that movies such as this one, despite being quite faithful to the overall formula and tone that he developed, feels like something that couldn’t have (even if it SHOULD have) been made in his time.  I mean I GUESS we could go with “teenage coming of age story”, but that still doesn’t feel like it fully encapsulates the specific high school angst and post puberty struggles of self-discovery that made us develop the term in the first place.  Anyway, I’m just rambling here as I honestly had no idea of this movie’s existence until it showed up at my local theater, but I am happy that we’re getting an ACTUAL LGBTQIA+ teen comedy as that kind of movie is a lot more in my wheelhouse than the super serious LGBTQIA+ films like Moonlight or even Carol.  Does this manage to succeed in being just as good if not better than its straight peers in the genre, or is its good intentions just not enough to carry this film all the way through its run time?  Let’s find out!!

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is your typical teenager, in that he’s not quite sure about his place in the world and has secrets that he doesn’t feel like sharing with the rest of the world.  As the audience though, we’re privy to ALL that information and we find out right away that Simon is in fact gay but hasn’t come out yet; not to his friends Leah, Abby, and Nick (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr), nor to his parents (Josh Duhmael and Jennifer Garner) and little sister (Talitha Bateman).  He has his reasons for doing so and it’s not like there’s a LAW that says you have to do it as soon as you know, so his plan is to just continue pining after hot dudes while hiding any trace that he’s actually doing so!  Simple enough, right!?  Well… not necessarily.  It turns out that there’s ANOTHER closeted gay dude in school who posts an anonymous letter on the school’s blog under the pseudonym Blue and leaves an e-mail address for people to contact him at.  Simon on a whim decides to reach out to him (using a pseudonym as well) which leads to a flurry of back and forth e-mails as Simon starts to develop feelings for this unknown “Blue” person.  However, since this IS a movie about teenagers, there has to be SOME sort of disaster and in this case it’s the nerdy kid Martin (Logan Miller) who finds Simon’s letters and tries to set up an “arrangement” (*cough* Blackmail *cough*) where Simon will help him clean up his act, take better care of himself, and become a much more attractive and emotionally available person which will help him meet awesome women who think he’s awesome and they can have awesome dates together.  At least that’s what I’m sure is going through MARTIN’S head to make this sound so much more innocent, but what it breaks down to is Simon (under threat of being forcibly outed) having to arrange dates between Martin and Abby who the former has a crush on.  Yeah, not the BEST situation to be in all things considered, and worse yet he might end up losing his chances with Blue who might get scared off if Simon is forcibly outed; thinking he might be next if he keeps contacting him.  Can Simon juggle this rough situation with his everyday duties of being the typical American teenager?  Will Martin make good on his threats and just how far will Simon have to go to keep that from happening?  How is it that EVERYONE’S teenage years suck!?  You’d think at least ONE person would luck out at some point!

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“Not only is my life over, it’s also a cliché…”

If anyone was worried that one of the first mainstream LGBTQIA+ teen comedies was going to crash and burn, don’t worry.  This movie is REALLY good and VERY sweet in ways that more traditional teen romances and coming of age stories never really manage to reach and I can only hope that after the success of this film more studios will follow suit to make LGBTQIA+ positive films of their own which really SHOULD have happened by now in mainstream cinema.  Now whether or not this is a good representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals (specifically gay men in this situation) is not really something I’m equipped to answer, but I found it to be believable, charming, and in no particularly way exoticized.  I never got the sense that they were in any particular way calling attention to the fact that Simon is gay in terms of how we’re supposed to feel about his sexuality or his burgeoning romance in the film, and it pretty much avoids any particular stereotype or negative gag regarding his sexual preferences; the most I can really think of being how he came to realize that he was gay which was by fantasizing about Danielle Radcliffe and Brendon Urie.  Sure, it’s played as a goof, but it’s also the same kind of joke we’d see in straight movies like this, only the inspiration being that one Farah Fawcett poster or Pamela Anderson on Baywatch.  Unless you happen to have issues with seeing gay characters on screen, I can’t really see why THIS particular story (which is very well told) wouldn’t be enjoyable to you; especially if you’re already a fan of teen romances to begin with.  Now that’s not to say that him being gay isn’t an IMPORTANT part of the story as much of the drama is about him being the closet, but it’s refreshing to see a movie like this that is not just matter of fact about a character being gay but also letting that character be the star of the movie.  It’s his story through and through and it’s a charming one that anyone should be able to appreciate and enjoy.

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“CAN YOU DIG IT!?”     “Dig what?  Wait, is that a reference to something?”

The fact that its star is gay is not the entirety of this movie, and on a basic nuts and bolts film making level I think this film is a step up from what we usually get in teen comedies.  Nick Robinson does a great job carrying this movie as I found his rather reserved performance in here to be quite relatable (especially when things spiral out of control and he’s having trouble maintaining his calm and measured demeanor), and the cast overall does a great job with the material they’re given.  Still, this is Simon’s story and the film does a great job of showing us things from his point of view; particularly how the mystery of Blue’s identity is handled.  Whenever we see “Blue” in this movie, he’s played by whoever Simon thinks his true identity might be, and there are even some interesting scenes that play out solely in his own imagination; such as when we see Blue come out to his father as Simon is reading about that story in one of his e-mails, and the scene is all played out by someone who may or may not even be the real dude!  There aren’t a whole lot of other stylistic flourishes here outside of Simon’s occasional day dream, but the cinematography gets the job done and makes this at least decent enough to look at even if it’s not overly impressive.  It’s not really that kind of movie though as the focus is on characters and story; both of which excel in this and are held up by a solid production and great turns by a very game and heartfelt cast.

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I’d make a Simple Minds joke here, but I’m pretty sure the target audience for this movie wouldn’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

One aspect of this movie that really stuck with me is the way that Simon along with his peers are forced to engage with the world through social media, and while I found it fascinating it MIGHT also be one point of contention  have with the film. Throughout the movie, there’s a clear performative nature with which everyone interacts, and not in a stagey way (though there is a school music in this to help hit the point home) but in an uncomfortably realistic sense.  Maybe this is just the cynic in me, but with so many vectors of communication to use with the rise of social media, we all have gotten much better at creating our PUBLIC PERSONAS that we use whenever we interact with the world, and it’s almost become a necessity considering how much everything ends up following us now.  Any mistakes we make or bad decision that goes horribly awry can very easily become forever enshrined on THE INTERNET and can be haunt us for decades to come; provided Twitter and Facebook don’t end up imploding on their own hubris, and even THEN I have my doubts that there won’t be someone dredging up something from our past to show off to the world.  In that sense, kids today HAVE to become savvy on these platforms and by extension the flesh and blood world we live in because someone always has a camera, someone’s always gonna gossip, and someone’s always gonna remind you of that one time you didn’t do something right.  How does that work in this movie?  Well so many of the interactions here, from Blue’s anonymous confession and carefully worded e-mails to Martin’s awkward attempts at living up to unrealistic (and downright toxic) beliefs on how society expects him to interact with women, all feel at least a little bit disingenuous.  The principal is the upbeat, intentionally dorky, progressive, and approachable guy, but when things go south for the whole school in the third act, he doesn’t know how to follow it up except in yet ANOTHER performative gesture (a pin he added to his lapel).  When Simon’s dad is popping off bad “dad jokes” it comes off as just something he’s expected to do and ends up coming back to bite him later on.  Heck, Simon is performativity straight throughout the whole movie, simply because he doesn’t want to come out of the closet, and while this MIGHT be a bit of projecting on my part, I kind of get why he wouldn’t WANT to come out in this environment.  There’s one other “gay kid” at school who is known by EVERYONE in a very sincere but kind of tone oblviously positive sense that in itself seems performative.  I mean… it just looks EXHAUSTING to have THAT SPECIFIC kind of attention on you, and at least from what I understood about Simon, it makes sense that he would be hesitant to come out even though he KNOWS his friends and family would be accepting of him.  It’s a permanent addition to who he is that, whether or not it’s something he shouldn’t be ashamed of, will forever change the way his friends, his family, and the world will see him, and not everyone wants extra baggage on top of what they’re already dealing with even if it’s “positive” baggage which let’s face it, it isn’t ALWAYS gonna be.  He wouldn’t JUST be coming out to those who love and understand him, especially with information traveling as fast and as far reaching as it does nowadays.  Now where I have to feel a bit contentious about this is how the third act plays out which kind of contradicts the message I was getting about the movie.  Essentially, there’s a Big Romantic Gesture right at the end that instead of continuing what I saw as a CRITICISM of Performative Progressivism in the era of social media (not that the issue is with progressivism itself but with the all-consuming and uncontrollable avalanche of attention and scrutiny that Social Media creates in those spaces) was a reinforcement of that; as if Simon had given up on being HIMSELF and instead decided to put on the Public Persona face that society expected him to wear.  If that WAS part of the message, it seems a bit cynical for such a sweet movie (GIVE IN TO THE INEVITABILITY OF BEING THE CENTER OF ATTENTION!), but to me it felt more like a cop out.  It’s a nice ending to be sure, but it also feels like a fake one; a bit too saccharin and unrealistic for a movie that did a decent job of grounding itself to avoid such overblown mawkishness.

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The school production of Cabaret is a brilliant running gag for this movie on SO many levels!

Now aside from my slight uneasiness with the way Simon is more or less forced to resolve his story arc, there are a few problems with the movie that hold it back just a little bit.  As much as Logan Miller does a great job portraying a VERY specific form of nerdy white/cis/het entitlement (man did his room look TOO much like my own…), I think he may have done TOO good a job of it considering how the movie resolves his character.  I won’t say EXACTLY what happens, but he really should have suffered SO many more consequences for what he does at one point in the movie, and his token gesture to “make it right” is just as performative as it is underwhelming.  That kind of goes with the theme I discussed above, but this was the part where I thought the film took a step too far and didn’t seem to realize just how terrible of a character he is.  Or maybe the movie does and figures that forgiveness is better than holding grudges; but when it comes to scriptwriting you kind of have to make it clear if your tacitly minimizing a character’s actions when there isn’t an equitable punishment in store for them.  Then again, my OTHER primary issue with the movie is how it handles SIMON’S punishment for his misgivings as I think the characters (and by extension the film) is too hard on him, so I guess I’m just impossible to please.  What I’m referring to specifically is the ALL IS LOST MOMENT which happens in every one of these films, but the way it’s handled felt a bit TOO harsh and didn’t gel with what we know about these characters.  Again, without spoiling TOO much, there are characters who SHOULD be more understanding (especially given what JUST happened to Simon at that point in the story) than to essentially leave him twisting in the wind.  Sure, you can probably chalk THIS specific gripe to teen drama where every mole hill is a mountain, and I also don’t want to minimize SIMON’S actions as they did hurt people and everyone has a right to feel the way they feel about what happens to them.  I just didn’t buy that the heat would fall on HIM and not who was ACTUALLY responsible.  Those issues are small enough though that while they do annoy me, they don’t take much away from the movie as they’re basically in and out within a few minutes.  It’s just an annoying few minutes when they DO show up.

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I don’t think any version of THIS is particularly ideal!

I don’t know if this is an all-time classic the way that John Hughes films were or even movies like Mean Girls ended up being in the long run, but it’s certainly a great movie right now and one that I have no problem recommending.  Go out and see this movie and support the production of more films like it.  Entertainment is one of the most important ways that we can shape the culture and move it into positive directions, so making sure that stuff like this succeeds is a part of that; especially when the final product is as good as this is.  Now to get started on the sequels; Sincerely Simon, Cordially Yours Simon, Best Regards Simon, With Great Condolences Simon…

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