Look, I promise the title isn’t clickbait. Hear me out.
Love, Simon (2018, Greg Berlanti) made headlines recently when the author of the book it was based on, Becky Albertalli, felt forced to come out as bi because of the criticism she received for writing so much queer fiction as a presumed-to-be-cishet woman. In her coming out post, which I implore you to read, she talks about Ownvoices, a hashtag created by author Corinne Duyvis that highlights stories by authors with the same (marginalised) identities as their characters. I will admit that, while I wasn’t one of the Twitter warriors weaponizing this term against Albertalli, I am often quick to criticise not-out-as-queer creators who tell queer stories.
An actor who played one of the queer characters in Love, Simon (I won’t tell you which one for the sake of spoilers), like Albertalli, came out shortly after the release of the film ー though, unlike her, not for feeling forced to do so. They are now a fierce advocate for the queer community. I dread to think that, had I written a review of Love, Simon as soon as it came out, I may have criticised them for being a (I assumed) straight actor playing a queer role.
All of this is to say that Becky Albertalli has made me think strongly about the way I use the Ownvoices narrative in my own reviews. We are not in a place in society where we have enough queer creators and creatives telling queer stories, so the frustration we feel when these limited opportunities are apparently co-opted by apparently cishet people is valid. However, it is always important to remember that people come out at their own pace, and we can never and should never use assumptions about someone’s identity as a weapon.
Having said all that, I still have plenty of critiques about Love, Simon that aren’t based around the mistaken fact that the writer of the original story is straight (once again, actually bi) ー so let’s get into those.
“I’m just like you, I have a perfectly normal life” says our protagonist Simon, as the camera shows him outside his large house in the suburbs getting a 4×4 for his birthday. Ah yes, it is clear from this opening shot, or even from the trailer and a quick glance at the cast, that Love, Simon is a gay film made for a cis, straight, white, middle-class audience. Or at the very least made to be palatable to The Hetties™. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but it is glaringly apparent, even in the first two minutes of the film. Then again, as (self-proportedly) the first film by a major Hollywood studio to focus on a gay teenage romance, it is a step in the white direction. I mean the right direction. Didn’t I say that?
Love, Simon is a modern teen rom-com in every sense of the word. It follows the story of Simon Spier, a closeted American high-schooler who is in love with a mysterious boy he only has access to online.
Britney Line Time: “Better make sure that the line is green / Keep it confidential, you and me”
At the same time, with a blackmailer threatening to out him to everyone he knows, Simon has to balance following the blackmailer’s demands with his personal life and friendships. And, of course, everything goes wrong: insert miscommunication, chaos, betrayal, and a whole lot of mind games.
As with a lot of American teen rom-coms, Love, Simon makes a heavy use of tropes. And, as we’ve seen time and time again on Every Gay Movie, queer films love to twist those tropes. However, it is in the twisting of these tropes that the film finds some of its biggest faults. Let me explain:
Trope #1: The innocent love story
The whole film leads up to one kiss
See also: High School Musical 1 & 2 (it actually took Troy and Gabriella two films to kiss).
I will admit that Love, Simon does a decent job at showing the potential for toxicity in Internet culture amongst teenagers (I’m staying deliberately vague here to avoid spoilers). However, what it does fail to do is show any gritty aspect of teenage sexuality. Simon spends the whole film emailing ‘Blue’, his anonymous gay crush, and as the messages get continuously more flirtatious, the most risqué we ever get is talking about kissing. Look, I know it’s supposed to be PG, but we’re talking about horny teenage boys here. As drag queen Alaska Thunderfuck pointed out on her podcast Race Chaser (I don’t remember which episode, sue me) Simon and Blue probably would have seen each other on Grindr by then anyway.
Trope #2: The karmic narrative
The romantic male lead is punished for his bad actions and has to earn back the respect of his love interest / friends.
See also: 17 again (the male lead has to go back in time to discover he’s a shitty person, and only then does he make an effort with his girlfriend)
This application of this trope in Love, Simon is potentially a lot more harmful; the so-framed ‘bad’ actions that Simon commits, eventually alienating some of his closest friends, are the product of blackmail. He is put in an impossible situation: lie to his friends, or be outed before he is ready. Even after this leads to a lot of serious emotional and mental torment, Simon has to do a lot of the work to pick up the pieces In this way, the narrative blames Simon for actions forced upon him by others, as if the lesson were “being outed is no big deal” ー a dangerous message to send to young audiences, queer or not.
Trope #3: The grand gesture
The romantic male lead has to do something big to win back his love
[Okay this is kind of an extension of Trope #2 but we all love a rule of 3 so let it slide]
See also: Friends with Benefits (Justin Timberlake organises a flash-mob to win back Mila Kunis after she overheard him say she was “too damaged” for him)
Okay, I know it’s a film, and I know it’s got to be dramatic, but Love, Simon’s romantic climax is deeply problematic. Staying vague to avoid spoilers, the “grand gesture” by its very nature puts unnecessary pressure on both of the boys, not only to come out but to do so in front of the whole school. Overall, any emotional nuance about the right to come out at your own pace that was so well built up throughout the film is blown up for the sake of a trivially cinematic moment. It is worth noting that the book’s ending was less problematic in this way ー as you’d expect from Becky Albertalli and her own experience coming to terms with a queer identity.
All problems with the story aside, and taking off my analytical hat for a moment, I can’t deny that Love, Simon made me feel things. I’ve watched it a few times by now, and yes, it still makes me cry. Its mainstream budget brings the high quality viewing experience, and somewhat of a commitment to modern themes and realism allows you to focus on the content itself, revealing some admittedly great acting. Nick Robinson as Simon is timid and thoughtful, yet at the same time calculated; that well-known sense of in-the-closet gay fear is often felt beneath the surface of his performance. Here, I could go into another 3-part rant, this time about how Simon’s fem-shaming behaviour is problematic (I won’t, but I will refer you to this article by them instead). However, we’ve all met a “I’m not like other gays” gay, and Nick Robinson is annoyingly convincing as one.
This might be a good time to mention that the gay college bedroom he imagines in one dream sequence (sadly shrugged off as ‘too gay’ at the end of the scene) looks exactly like my university bedroom.
Biggest Gay Mood: falling in love with everyone you even suspect might be gay.
Honourable mentions include: drinking iced coffee, coming out to complete strangers and wearing boots
In this sea of pretty great acting, Jennifer Garner, as Simon’s mother, is a shining highlight. To give you an idea, everything I’ve noted here comes from just one scene. She captures the essence of concerned mother beautifully: she pretends to be writing when Simon enters the room so she doesn’t look too eager as to embarrass him; she waits for him to come to her with his problems, not wanting to pry but always pining to protect; when she goes to kiss him on the head, she holds him so delicately and preciously, as one might perhaps hold a faberge egg. Overall, her portrayal feels honest, and her pausing is well placed and natural ー as if she were coming up with the words herself. Josh Duhamel does a decent job alongside her, competently playing the role of well-intentioned but awkward heterosexual father.
At the end of this scene, Simon’s mother tells him “you deserve anything you want”. If that message carries through the screen, I deserve Jennifer Garner telling me I am enough. Honestly, after what we have to go through, I think every queer person deserves that.
Top Tip: Try not to think too much about the mainstreaming of (cis, white, monogamous) queerness and its dangerous implications while watching and you’ll probably enjoy it more.
Now, onto the title of this review (finally!) I found myself asking myself when writing this whether I would classify Love, Simon as a queer film. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it depends on your definition of the word. If by queer you mean focused around themes of LGBTQ+ identity, then yes, it undoubtedly is. And if this is all it means, then Love, Simon executes its mission with a poised creativity and modernity.
If, however (and this is the view I lean towards), you view queer art as something essentially subversive in its nature, challenging the status quo through active disturbance of norms around sexuality, gender and beyond, then I’m not sure the answer is as clear. Within this definition I’m not sure any major studio production could be classified as queer, considering that the necessity to fight against the establishment is made impossible by, essentially, belonging to and depending on said establishment. So perhaps by being gay but also mainstream ー and specifically by trying to force mainstream tropes into a gay, and thus inherently different, narrative ー Love, Simon has lost some of its queer power. But, if it aimed to be a story about a gay teenager that’s glossy and digestible enough to change the minds of some ignorant people, I suppose it is doing its job.
Head image via Just Jared