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‘Love, Simon’: Progress in the Form of Deliberate Banality

There’s an audience that needs a gay teen movie, and not despite it being an airy, optimistic fantasy, but rather for precisely that reason

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

Love, Simon, a gay teen romance released by 20th Century Fox, is here, and it’s sort of queer—do we need anything else? The movie stars Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as the picture-perfect parents of a high school senior named Simon (Nick Robinson), who’s secretly gay, and who falls in love with an anonymous pen pal he meets through a school message board online. It’s You’ve Got Mail for the Grindr era, but sweeter, and with better playlists.

That, at least, is the logline. The plot, inspired by Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, is a little more creative. Simon, online handle Jacques (as in “Jacques a dit,” French for “Simon Says”), spends a lot of time emailing back and forth with a guy who goes by Blue. Blue’s longing initial post online, where Simon and everyone else at school first sees it, is about feeling like an outsider. It’s right up Simon’s alley, despite his being gay in more or less the best possible circumstances. He’s got loving, liberal parents, a diverse circle of close friends, and a broader circle of adults in his corner who are sex-positive to the point of making life awkward. They are all ready to accept him should he ever finally come out, but of course that’s not how the anxiety of coming out works, even at a school where Simon wouldn’t be the first. Simon has an unacknowledged role model in a black gay kid named Ethan, who’s got a perm, and who’s been out for two years (unless you’re counting from as far back as whenever he got that perm). Ethan’s been softening everyone up at school by bravely shouldering the brunt of anti-gay social abuse for the past two years, but Love, Simon, as heartening and well-intentioned as it is, isn’t quite the movie to understand Ethan on those explicit terms, or to explore their ramifications. That’s an advanced lesson, and this movie’s got to stick—and appeal—to the basics. So be it. I’m not here to finger-wag and tell you how much worse off it is for that fact.

Instead, I’m here to tell you that it’s just that basic kind of movie: deliberately non-tragic, scrupulously nonviolent, but notably focused nevertheless on the drama of everyday closeted life for Simon, for whom things get especially sticky when a kid named Martin finds his messages to Blue and blackmails Simon into setting him up with a girl he likes. It’s a premise that understands one of the key takeaways of the closet, which is that sexuality is a valuable piece of intel. It’s also a nice springboard for a few valuable life lessons about friendship and integrity, a handful of strong performances (particularly from the sturdy Robinson and his friends), and some clever writing, which strings us along on Simon’s fantasies about Blue’s identity.

It’s a perfectly fine movie. And because it’s a wide release produced by a major Hollywood studio—the first gay teen romance of its kind—it is a very, very big deal. Can’t we just leave it at that? I don’t especially want to revisit the parts of the movie that made me want to shrivel up into a skeptically uptight ball of “Darn.” I don’t want to have to write the paragraph about how anyone who knows me knows how I’m apt to feel about a gay movie opening with the line “I’m just like you”—meaning you, straight people—in 2018. For everyone who cannot predict: This is the kind of thing that makes me liable to have an aneurysm. It’s the sort of open-armed, unthreatening approach to making gayness mainstream that now, as an adult, I’m supposed to remind myself isn’t meant for me, but for closeted teenagers like Simon and their families. As a closeted teenager, I tended to find such efforts as hokey, misleading, and inadvertently alienating as I do now—so where does that leave me in 2018? Pretty much in the same place. Love, Simon is smart enough to gesture at knowing that outright pleas for gay normalcy don’t really cut it. Simon’s opening scroll, about how normal and perfect his family is (mom and dad were high school sweethearts; their middle-class suburban kitchen is perversely clean, well-lit, and overlarge) is initially an introduction for our sakes, but it’s really a practice run for his opening email to Blue, who is also, presumably, normal, and who’d openly self-describe as such. “Normal” is a word I feverishly hate in this context. I have eliminated it from my vocabulary. I’m trying not to let my hatred for it make me hate this otherwise innocuous movie.

But as a gay critic (another thing I hate: having to start a sentence with “as a gay critic”) I can’t outrun the fact a movie like Love, Simon puts me in an awkward position. I can’t just review it as I would any other movie; I have to review it as a gay critic talking about a gay movie. I’m supposed to be the voice in the room that writes knowingly, with an eye toward my own coming-out experience, about what’s at stake in a movie like this, what it means for “people like me,” no matter whether I actually think the movie has any merits beyond the obvious. I’m supposed to have a moment while writing when I notice the day and date and get reminded that this is the Trump era, when public support for LGBT people in America has, according to GLAAD, taken a sudden downturn and calls to the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBT youth, doubled the day after the election of our current president. This, and only this, is the premise of a response to a movie about a gay teenager coming out to little violence and broad social acceptance. Clearly, there’s an audience that needs this movie, and not despite it being an airy, optimistic fantasy, but rather for precisely that reason.

But an algorithmically controlled blog bot, trained to scan and regurgitate headlines, could tell you all that. The sole advantage of being a human, I guess, is being able to use personal pronouns as I navigate these finer details—and for readers to be able to watch the “gay” part of me and the “critic” part of me duke it out for their benefit. Isn’t that the curse of progress as we currently define it? You’re sort of forced to take what you can get, so long as it’s “progress.” Our general attitude toward any sort of social breakthrough at the movies is to congratulate it, and I’m not above that impulse. Surely, one movie like Love, Simon begets more movies like Love, Simon—which is why Brokeback Mountain, the last mainstream gay movie of similar studio-backed prominence, was released “only” three presidents ago. Right? I was younger than Simon when Heath Ledger pantomimed spit-lube-fucking Jake Gyllenhaal in a camping tent that was so studiously underlit I may as well have been trying to watch porn without a cable descrambler. But why keep track of how long it’s been since that high-water mark? The stats are bound to be disappointing. Carol, Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, and other notable films have come out since then, but they either failed to make as much money as Love, Simon has explicitly been designed to make, or they were made by people who knew better than to try.

Watching queer go mainstream in the 21st century entails weighing and reweighing how it feels when the rest of the world keeps reminding you that it’s still playing catch-up—in slow motion, no less. Meanwhile, you’re out and about living your life, or trying to, while having to make the best of that fact. That’s the bargain. Every day I get to wake up and ask myself, Shall I be a bitch about representation today? I typically choose not to be, but it’s never an easy choice. I happen to have no problem with LGBT romance in contemporary movies, or in any other aspect of our lives, and I’d like to think that’s not only because I happen to be gay, but also because I’m not a dumbass. For me, it’s as simple as that, and I see no reason to mince words. But go ahead, America. Take your time.

Love, Simon is unusual for being a movie about a gay teenager that’s getting a wide release—over 2,400 theaters! I wish that meant as much to me as it means for America. I wish caring about this fact didn’t entail ignoring that the movie’s deliberate banality is kind of lame. Queer filmmakers have been teaching us for decades that LGBT movies can be both aesthetically and socially significant—that a movie that makes me feel accepted as a gay man can also, as cinema, cut against the grain of boring art. But those films’ platforms weren’t prominent enough to make a widespread difference. They weren’t getting promoted by 20th Century Fox. Whatever message was being transmitted by films like Bound, Poison, The Watermelon Woman, Paris Is Burning, and My Own Private Idaho, much of America and the rest of the world has still, apparently, not heard it. Hence: Love, Simon. Hence the urgency of a big swing.

As a human, and not a blog bot, I’m supposed to be able to deftly, compassionately navigate the difference between Love, Simon’s essential social role and its limited contributions otherwise. I’m supposed to write to the tune of, “But I’m glad it exists.” I’m not not glad, but maybe let’s skip all that. The movie is it what is, and if the row of crying teens behind me when I saw it this week is any indication, what it is is meaningful for being so rare for so many. I loathe that that’s the standard—but that’s the standard. I don’t have a replacement. I’m fine going the heartwarming route, because at least it feels good, even if only for as long as it takes to remember how easily heartwarming narratives get forgotten—and how effective politicians, who lie for a living, have proved at making people forget them. Our country is reconvincing itself that acceptance of any form simply isn’t advantageous. That’s terrifying. I can admire that Love, Simon wants to ease that terror by contouring itself to the needs of the biggest possible audience while also remaining at a firm and immovable distance. I’m not mad at the movie for its limited sense of genuine progress. I’m mad that despite those limits, we still so desperately seem to need it.