In some of the most heartstring-tugging scenes of Love, Simon, Greg Berlanti’s teenage rom-com released Friday, the titular character (Nick Robinson) musters the courage to reveal to his parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) that he’s gay.
Their response? “You’re still you … but you get to exhale, Simon,” his mother encourages. “You get to be more you than you’ve been in a very long time.” His father laments that he didn’t realize Simon had kept this secret for years, and apologizes: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have missed it. All those stupid jokes …” and goes on to say the words that every young person in this position longs to hear: “I just want you to know that I love you and I wouldn’t change anything about you.”
Love, Simon, a wide-release film, brings the tender relationship of its titular gay character and his parents to broad audiences. Where prior LGBTQ-centric films such as The Kids Are All Right, Carol, and even Damon Cardasis’s recent Saturday Church were confined to the artful hinterlands of indie or brought somewhat familiar narratives to the margins of mainstream, Love, Simon presents mainstream filmgoers with a new script. One doesn’t need to search very hard to find overwhelmingly positive responses from its intended audience, many of whom identify in some way with Simon. Despite its adherence to the kind of familiar banality that rom-com audiences sometimes gravitate toward, Love, Simon still plays a vital role: depicting a rather new dynamic between the straight parent and queer child.
Much of what we have come to understand and appreciate as representation in queer film has been focused on the protagonists themselves: the complex (or otherwise) interiority around identifying as something other than cisgender or straight, the journey to acceptance or the stifling prison of denial, and how they navigate a cis and heteronormative society as a queer person. But there is another aspect of these stories that has shifted in recent years, and one fully deserving of praise: seeing the parent(s) as champions for their queer child, rather than adversaries.
In the vast majority of queer film, the parental figure’s reaction in a coming-of-age narrative is a negative one. It’s often one of the first major obstacles the young protagonist faces, if not the most significant one throughout the story. It’s such a standard story line that audiences are braced for it (or for the protagonist to be shoved back into the closet, or killed). Take Pariah, Dee Rees’s 2011 bildungsroman focused on the life of Alike, a 17-year-old black girl exploring her established lesbian identity. She experiences acute shame and discrimination from her bewildered mother, who attempts to quell Alike’s sexuality with religious ideology and traditionally feminine clothing. Despite Alike’s disappointment in her mother’s homophobia, she boldly resists falling in line or contorting herself into an identity she doesn’t claim. It’s a gratifying stance, but that does not make it any less painful to watch Alike’s mother figuratively—and literally—close the door in her face. Alike’s triumph is ultimately found in seeking out a future for herself that—the viewer must assume—no longer involves her own mother. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y., the young gay protagonist Zac abruptly loses his father’s approval when he is discovered dressing up in his mother’s clothing as a child, sparking a battle of wills and rampant shame through his childhood and adolescence. And the forthcoming film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, follows the teenaged Cameron as she is sent to a summer conversion camp after her parents find her kissing a female classmate.
It would be dangerous and irresponsible to overlook the thinking behind these heart-wrenching story lines: simply put, they’re overwhelmingly accurate. According to a 2017 University of Chicago study, LGBT youth have a 120 percent higher risk for homelessness. A 2016 CDC report asserts that “the prevalence of having seriously considered attempting suicide was higher among gay, lesbian, and bisexual students (42.8 percent) than heterosexual students (14.8 percent) and not sure students (31.9 percent).” Born into a world that prescribes one’s gender and sexual identity from birth, children who realize that their assigned labels don’t fit place themselves at enormous risk just for being honest about who they are. In sharing these truths, filmmakers shed a light on the impasse that has driven a moral and religious wedge between parents and their children for generations. But when did this gap begin to close?
If we’re surveying mainstream movies, the 1995 teen juggernaut Clueless featured Christian (Justin Walker), who is first pursued by Cher as a love interest, but ultimately becomes one of her best friends after it is revealed that he’s gay. While his character is given a depth and originality that feels somewhat progressive for its time, we aren’t offered many clues about how he’s perceived by his community, aside from the presumably tongue-in-cheek generalizations from his “friends” (“He’s a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde–reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy, know what I’m saying?” Murray explicates). The year 2004 gifted us with Mean Girls, which featured a prominent gay character, Damian (Daniel Franzese): out and proud, but unfortunately, little more than a punch line (“He’s almost too gay to function”). Supporting cast he may be, but there was no attempt to glean more than surface-level stereotype from his character, much less examine his relationship with his family. But in 2010, the Scarlet Letter–inspired teen romance Easy A featured parents whose playful banter and progressive values rendered them the story’s real heroes. When Olive Penderghast, played by Emma Stone, is in the midst of a very vocal crisis, her father enters her room to investigate. Honestly, it’s hard not to fall in love with Stanley Tucci in any role he plays, but the careworn, permissive father who patiently intones, “I was gay once, for a while. We all do it. It’s OK!” truly takes the cake. Alas, Olive is very much not gay, but her parents’ laissez-faire approach to raising strong and self-confident children (Olive’s mom is played by the effervescent Patricia Clarkson), regardless of orientation or race, has cemented them in modern history as two of the best movie parents of all time.
More recently, in one dizzying moment in February 2017, a story about a gay black man living in the South was vaulted to one of the highest chambers of critical prestige a film can hope to occupy. Moonlight’s Best Picture triumph at the Academy Awards that night was the crest of a cultural wave, ushering in a new era of queer film that is subverting the standard narrative in both overt and subtle ways. The movie opens on a sadly familiar scene: a young child being chased and persecuted by schoolyard bullies because of his perceived homosexuality. Chiron is living in the rough streets of Liberty City, Miami, with an absent father and drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris); we immediately recognize the stakes are insurmountably high. But salvation arrives in the unlikely form of Juan (Mahershala Ali), understood to be the top drug dealer in the neighborhood. After finding a mute and frightened Chiron hiding from his grade school tormentors in an abandoned crack den, Juan assumes responsibility for him, buying him dinner, and then bringing him home to meet his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who he vows “will get him to talk.” Thus begins a dynamic that nimbly avoids the one we expect: Juan knows Chiron is different, that he’s sensitive in a way that endangers him in the life he was born into, but he accepts and loves him in a way that no one else has. While Paula rarely disparages him to his face, she is well aware of her son’s burgeoning identity (“You ever see the way he walk, Juan?” she taunts) and spitefully relinquishes her role as caregiver to Juan and Teresa. And while Juan and Chiron’s relationship is complicated by the role drugs play in both of their lives—after all, it is Juan who sustains Paula’s addiction—the significance of that bond, and the one between Chiron and Teresa, should not be brushed aside.
“Am I a faggot? … How do I know [if I’m gay]?” Chiron asks, in a moment that feels like the breathless culmination of the movie’s first act, the language unsettlingly frank from the mouth of a child. Chiron is revealing much of himself here, laying bare his inner thoughts and fears in a way his shuttered personality rarely allows, and he is rewarded: not necessarily by Juan and Teresa’s measured response, but in the fact that they answer him at all. They grant him the dignity and compassion he deserves, not just as a confused child, but as a human being. Within a story that, at first glance, seems to offer few safe harbors to boys like Chiron, their parental guidance and care is a welcome departure from the norm.
2017 ushered in a bevy of exciting queer film, but the front-runner is inarguably Luca Guadagnino’s lush and luxurious Call Me by Your Name, based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman. Set in Northern Italy in 1983, it’s a coming-of-age story whose angst is somewhat blunted by the ubiquity of the Perlmans’ material wealth. Seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is the only child to parents whose intellectual prowess and inherited affluence afford the family a life of edenic privilege, a breathtaking European idyll that, as D.A. Miller argues in the Los Angeles Review of Books, appears to come at very little cost indeed: “More astonishing than the Sontagesque range of high culture on display is the exquisite facility with which the family commands it; the acquirements are so natural, or naturalized, that that they show no sign of having had to be acquired.” From the outset, Call Me by Your Name establishes a feeling of ease that seems almost sinister: When are we offered a same-sex love story that isn’t subjected to some sort of terrible tragedy? I walked into the theater almost certain that one of the main characters would die, a prediction I heard many times from other anxious viewers as well.
Elio’s summer paramour is Oliver (Armie Hammer), the Adonis-esque 24-year-old graduate student who lives with the family to assist his father. When the two finally come together, after weeks of coy uncertainty regarding the other’s attraction, a familiar anxiety sets in: What about Elio’s parents? The movie drops hints, but how much do they actually know? Are they hoping for incontrovertible evidence of the boys’ dalliance before tearing them apart? These fears are allayed when they essentially send Elio and Oliver on an overnight trip together, but one of the final scenes, after Oliver has gone back to America, puts this fear to rest altogether.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Elio’s father’s final monologue has transcended the bright star of the movie itself, a stirring performance by Michael Stuhlbarg that continues to resonate with audiences long after the credits roll. We learn that Elio’s parents were well aware of his and Oliver’s relationship, and rather than try to “snuff it out,” his father yearned for Elio to experience the rapture of infatuation and love, no matter the outcome. He hints that he once fell in love with a man, but didn’t pursue it, a parental lament that feels traditional in form, but radical in content. Speaking directly about Oliver, he says, “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent.” His wish for Elio is to live wholly, truly, never allowing his pain to limit possibilities for future happiness. A universal message, yes, but a necessarily provocative one, from a father to his queer son in a story set in the 1980s. In the same way that the Perlman family’s prosperity feels natural, unburdened by sacrifice, so too is Elio’s sexual awakening allowed to bloom unhampered, free of tragedy or disgrace.
It’s not the responsibility of the film industry to teach us how to be decent people. There are still a multitude of queer stories to be told on the big screen: ones that completely resist the traditional “coming out” narrative, that feature a variety of gender-nonconforming characters, that don’t require a character’s queer sexuality to be its own story line. We aren’t exempt from treating the people around us with love and respect just because we haven’t seen them portrayed that way in a movie theater. And yet, time and experience have proved that depicting the stories that we feel should be told only serves to normalize them for audiences that would be otherwise ignorant. Parents, guardians, grandparents, teachers—they all stand to benefit from movies that present acceptance as a legitimate, and aspirational, response. If our aim is to move forward as a society, to the point where we’ve long surpassed these milestones in queer film, then first we need to make sure we aren’t leaving the parents behind.
Carla is an associate publicist at Riverhead Books. Her writing has appeared in New York magazine, Catapult, Lenny Letter, and Romper, among others. She is a book editor at Well-Read Black Girl.