Love, Gay Teens
Directed by Greg Berlanti
Love, Simon aspires to being a gay equivalent of classic teen films like Clueless, Rushmore and Say Anything and falters, feeling more like an OK episode of a sitcom. Still, it says something that 20th-Century Fox, not its “indie” division Fox Searchlight, is the distributor for a film whose scenes of teenage boys kissing are intended to produce applause, both from the crowds on-screen and in the theater, rather than jeers. In fact, it consciously plays with the expectations about the reticence one might expect from a Hollywood film about a gay teen in an earlier scene by cutting just as Simon (Nick Robinson) is about to kiss another boy under sprigs of mistletoe and then going on to play two boys’ kiss as a set piece. This will become a film that teenagers who have just come out to their parents give them on Blu-Ray, and I can’t take issue with that. However, I’d like to see something more complex about gay identity than a simple coming-out story shown to mass audiences, even if most openly LGBQ people go through the steps Simon does. This is the first film with a gay protagonist given a full-fledged Hollywood studio release in years, if not decades. (Its Wikipedia page says “Love, Simon is the first film by a major Hollywood studio to portray a gay protagonist,” which reflects severe amnesia about ’90s movies like The Birdcage, In and Out and The Object of My Affection.) It’s too bad that it stops at Gay 101, although I realize that its intended audience is kids like Simon and their classmates.
Director Greg Berlanti’s background lies in TV, and not hip “golden age” shows like Breaking Bad or The Americans. He currently works as a producer on Supergirl and The Flash. This Is Us scribes Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger wrote the script. Love, Simon’s sensibility is thoroughly rooted in that medium: this is the CW blown up for the multiplex. Even Berlanti’s framing seems geared largely for eventual small-screen viewers. It locates gayness in the kind of white, middle-class nuclear family Hollywood has generally depicted as America’s ideal. This is his third film as a director, following up on his 2010 gay-themed debut The Broken Hearts Club. Love, Simon’s sensibility is modern enough to allow for interracial romance, but its African-American characters, while plentiful, always play like sidekicks. And the one openly gay boy at Simon’s high school at the film’s start is so femme that I wondered if he’d be revealed as a budding trans woman — or at least start identifying as genderqueer or non-binary — by the end. Simon’s conventionally masculine behavior seems intended to be contrasted with his classmate’s exaggerated and stereotypical swishiness. This point is pushed even further when Simon has a brief fantasy of coming out in a luridly fabulous college atmosphere, set to Whitney Houston’s “I Want To Dance With Somebody.”
What Love, Simon gets right is the mixture of promise and danger that technology offers gay teens. When I was grappling with my sexuality in the 1980s, I went through high school without ever meeting an openly gay person. The option of doing an anonymous social media post declaring one’s gayness and then communicating with other closeted and isolated teens would have helped me greatly, but it obviously wasn’t possible back then. Love, Simon doesn’t portray the Internet as a hellhole of cyberbullies and predators the way so many recent films do. (In his attempt to be cool, Simon’s dad misunderstands the nature of Grindr amusingly.) However, it does show how easy it is to out oneself accidentally on-line and how this can have ugly real-life consequences. One major difference between the film and its source novel, Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda, is that in the latter, Simon’s friend Martin learns that he’s gay on the first page because Simon forgot to log out of his Gmail account. (As a result, Martin starts blackmailing him.) But in general, the very existence of Love, Simon shows an acceptance of teenagers coming out in high school.
Simon is the same age as Elio in Call Me By Your Name, who is not reticent about exploring his libido. Love, Simon does not get beyond puppy love. It was obviously made for a PG-13 rating: it even refers to a hand job as “a H.J.” and plays a loop of the instrumental opening to DJ Shadow and Run the Jewels’ hip-hop song “Nobody Speak” while Simon’s friends discuss what music to play on their iPhones because its profanity-strewn lyrics would probably lead to an R rating. In fact, Love, Simon really deserves a PG rating and probably would’ve gotten one were Simon heterosexual: a scene where he gets drunk is the only thing in it I can see any reasonable, non-homophobic parent objecting to.
In some respects, it actually seems less compromised than Call Me By Your Name despite the latter’s arthouse pedigree. It obviously never imagined Simon as a sexually active being, where Guadagnino depicts a protagonist who sleeps with both men and women but shows the very beginnings of sex scenes and then cuts away. I’m not sure exactly what Albertalli meant by her book’s title, but it actually sums up the denialist attitudes most homophobes have towards the legitimacy of sexual orientation quite well. Simon’s difficulties and anxieties coming out, while mild compared to those faced by teenagers with a very real risk of getting thrown on the street by their parents, testify to the real power of the kind of casual insults and jokes about gayness a boy like him is likely to hear even in the most liberal households.
Love, Simon refers to past ideas about gayness glancingly by having Simon’s high school do a production of Cabaret. This film’s domestication of queer identity is a far cry from Cabaret’s association of it with “divine decadence” and Weimar Berlin, yet it needs to conjure up the latter in order to defuse those notions. It is genuinely funny to see teenagers lounging about a high school theater rehearsal in Nazi uniforms and feather boas. Instead of linking gayness to outré nightclubs, Love, Simon sets in suburban Atlanta and suggests that only the closet turns it into a mystery. Reviews of Albertalli’s novel keep pointing to its links to that genre, focusing on Simon’s quest to discover the identity of “Blue,” the boy with whom he’s corresponding.
We’re in a climate where hatred is being actively and effectively sowed by very powerful people. A friend told me in an E-mail how much he wishes a film like Love, Simon had existed when he was a teen. Its exploration of teenage gay identity and the very early stages of coming out are a starting point, but I think one can understand how a 45-year-old gay man might wish for something more complex. Love, Simon is definitely flawed. It also might do some good in the real world. While better than Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, writing about it presents the same dilemma: an increasingly popular notion suggests that one should ignore the aesthetic problems of films expressing politics one agrees with, especially if they might have a positive impact on children and teenagers. The problem is that this turns art into propaganda and glosses over the elements of respectability politics in films like Hidden Figures which don’t allow minorities the flaws or vices that 99% of real human beings have. But the way Love, Simon makes Simon the kind of guy who would probably place a personal ad in 10 years calling himself “straight-acting” is probably necessary for tweens struggling with their sexuality to be able to see it in the first place. Even Berlanti’s televisual background and sensibility shows that these days, mainstream TV often does more justice to America’s diversity than our mainstream cinema.