Let me just warn you: this review is going to be very unpopular.
I have been a gay man all my life. And by that I mean ALL my life. My earliest memories are of attractions to and curiosities about the male of the species. I was gay at three when I looked forward to watching my dad play basketball because I knew I could sit in the locker room after and watch the men undress. I was gay when I developed a crush on Charlie Washburn in the first grade. I was gay when I performed excerpts from Mary Poppins to my first grade class. I’ve always been gay. Gay, gay, gay.
Any minority will tell you that representation is crucial. So I should be happy that Love, Simon, the first story of its kind in wide release by a major studio, is out there for people to see. And I am. I really am. But I’m sorry to say I hated the movie. I just hated it.But let’s start with what was good or interesting about the film. It has a good soundtrack. I enjoyed the music quite a bit. The closing song, “Wild Heart,” by Bleachers, is lovely. There are a couple of very moving scenes later in the movie, specifically between Simon and his mom, and Simon and his dad, and Simon and his sister. There’s a great performance by Logan Miller as Martin, the movie’s antagonist (more on that later). The movie’s score is a fantastic homage to the teen flicks of the eighties, especially Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.
But other than that…
So I hated this movie on two different levels, a cinematic one and a sociological one.
On a cinematic level, the movie falls so hard on homage, as if to make itself clichéd and unoriginal. In an effort to pay homage to various romantic comedies, teen and non-teen, the movie recycles various plot points including a “climactic” scene so tired as to be insulting. In an effort to create a relatable protagonist, the director and screenwriters present a character so bland as to be almost non-existent. There is literally nothing that makes Simon Simon. He appears to have no interests, no personality, not even any distinguishing physical characteristics. And as played by Nick Robinson he is so completely forgettable that I could develop no connection to him. In an effort to make him an everyman, they have made the character a no-man.
The humor in the movie is unoriginal, and trying way too hard. Tony Hale tries his best to make something of his principal character, written as the over-enthusiastic administrator trying too hard to relate to his teen students. As a running gag it is easy, obvious and not very funny. One fantasy sequence where Simon imagines himself coming out at college in a musical dance number is cringe worthy and Nick Robinson stomps through it looking so uncomfortable it was one of the few moments I felt any pathos and it was for him, not his character.
And maybe this last cinematic pet peeve is just my problem, but as a high school theater teacher, I’m so tired of filmmakers casting twenty somethings as high school students (Nick Robinson is 22, Katherine Langford, 21, Logan Miller, 26!). They don’t look like teenagers, they don’t seem like teenagers and they take me completely out of the story. I know for a fact that there are teenagers who can play these roles. Cast them.
Now for the really grim stuff.
Let’s start with the antagonist, Martin. The character is portrayed as an annoying pest who then begins to blackmail Simon by threatening to reveal his secret. Boy is he annoying. He’s loud, he sings badly, he tries too hard. Ugh. We hate him. He likes magic! And he wears t-shirts that have sayings on them! Yuck. He’s actually the only unique character in the whole movie, the only one that has an individual personality and he’s vilified for it. The main characters, including Simon, treat him like shit. They create the evil that he does later and it is never addressed.
Surprise! Simon ends up in love! His dream man shows up just in time in a last minute union that is as saccharine as it is predictable. Sure, we’re not really into movies like this for plot twists, are we? But thank god when he shows up, he’s attractive. Not like those other losers from earlier in the movie. Early on, when Simon gets a clue as to his online fellow gay in the school, he scours the halls for a boy who is into Game of Thrones. Each boy he sees in the halls in a Game of Thrones t-shirt is “less desirable” than the last: the chubby nerd with the long hair? Eww. The too-tall, skinny Indian nerd? Double Eww. As we watch this scene we are meant to feel as Simon does: God I hope my secret email fellow gay isn’t that conventionally unattractive guy there. He needs to be typically attractive like everybody else in this movie.
Love, Simon is a gay love story. It is a gay love story directed by a gay man. So far so good. So one of my questions is this: if the director Greg Berlanti describes himself as an Italian who grew up in a town of WASPs, where his family didn’t do as well as 90% of the other people in his community, what is up with ultra-sanitized, so-clean-it-squeaks white rich world where he sets his film? Is it because he was paying homage to those teen films of the 80’s? The school: spotless. The kids (well, the adults): homogenized. Even the kids of color are white. Everyone has money and lives in an amazing house. Just like those teen movies of the 80’s. Well if it was trying to pay homage, then why bother including any people of color? The 80’s movies didn’t. And if they were trying to update by adding kids of color, why not really update and show us a world a little more grounded in reality?
But my hatred of this movie lies in the deeply seated self-loathing that is insidiously entrenched in the film. This is a gay movie made by a gay man for a straight audience. Greg Berlanti is the gay world’s Uncle Tom.
Is it important that gay stories are put in front of a straight audience? Sure. But why do we have to pander to the straight audience to do it. Some might say it should be enough that this story is being told. And maybe it is. But the same thing was said about the visibility for people of color that was provided by roles as maids, gardeners and drug dealers. Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but if it is, then why is Simon played by a straight actor? Oh, but at least the role helped Nick Robinson connect with his gay brother. How many more tight-lipped, uncomfortable and passionless kisses between straight actors (or in this case one gay and one probably terrified straight actor. Oh, isn’t he brave? We should give him an Oscar!) are we supposed to endure? Simon as presented is as sexless as a Ken doll. Oh, wait. Once he looks at a guy with something approaching lust. Nope, our guy doesn’t want gay sex. That’s nasty. He wants love. Pure, clean love. As long as we can see Simon as pure, we don’t have to think about horrible things like AIDS, promiscuity or butt sex. And if we can see him as pure without all that other messiness, we’re one step closer to tolerance. Acceptance, maybe later.
The only out gay character in the movie is Ethan, the school “out gay guy”. This character I would liken to Stepin Fetchit, an embarrassment in our American film history: a living breathing comical stereotype. It is one of the ways that this film panders to the images that straight people carry about gay people. If you’re a gay man you’re fussy. You do things to make yourself look more like a woman. Because if you’re really gay you probably want to be a woman. While the character exhibits strength and dignity, he’s still used as a visual joke.
The closest note that this film hits to something important is when Simon bemoans the fact that coming out is a responsibility exclusively foisted on gay kids. The truth is that any coming out story, from the easiest (like Simon’s) to the most horrifying, is a moving story. Which is why the movie succeeds when it comes to Simon coming out to his family. But it is the easiest of coming outs. His parents are so liberal it hurts. And that is clearly a big part of the message: coming out is difficult under the best of circumstances. But what does that mean for all the other coming out stories. It’s not to say that this story has to be everything to everyone. There are other stories to tell. I’m just saying that this story is unchallenging pablum and I hated it.