Trailblazing Teen Comedy "Love, Simon" Is Pure Magic

The absurd level of charm exuded by gay teen rom-com “Love, Simon” is more than enough to overcome its aggressively conventional approach to the genre. But wait! Those same conventions – like an assemblage of actors a little too old to be playing high schoolers – are a large part of what makes the movie so momentous. Critiques of the pic’s failure to depict much in the way of physical gay love have cropped up online, inadvertently underlining one of its biggest strengths: its relative chasteness. Teen comedies as we know them date back nearly forty years – many of them chaste, all of them centered on straight protagonists, making “Love, Simon” the very first of its kind: a PG-13 studio rom-com about an LGBTQ high schooler.

That it’s so engaging and funny and warm only further begs the rhetorical question: why did it take so long?

Openly gay director and television producer Greg Berlanti, whose last feature was maligned 2010 rom-com “Life As We Know It,” returns with the genre’s most surefooted entry in years. Adapted from 2015 young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film stars 23-year-old Nick Robinson, best known for starring in 2013’s “The Kings Of Summer” and supporting in 2015’s “Jurassic World.” The actor underplays the title character to great effect. Simon Spier is by all metrics a normal high schooler: kind but shy, popular but not too popular, and thick as thieves with a small group of friends.

There’s his lifelong confidant Leah (Katherine Langford), affable soccer enthusiast Nick (Jorge David Lendeborg Jr.), and Washington, D.C. transplant Abby (Alexandra Shipp), all tightly knit without a secret among them. Or so Simon’s friends think. Despite having relatively liberal parents (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), our lead remains firmly in the closet, dreaming of the day – college, he imagines – when he can live an openly gay lifestyle. (“Not that gay,” he deadpans, in reference to a fantasy dance sequence set to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”)

But, as happens in this kind of film, life comes at Simon fast.

Another closeted gay student at school makes an anonymous blog post. Inspired, Simon creates a sock puppet email account to correspond to the post’s author. Under the alias “Jacques,” Simon begins to communicate regularly with “Blue.” Before long, the two have formed an intimate, inseparable digital bond – one that continually threatens to spill over into the real world. Close calls inevitably ensue, with the mystery of Blue’s identity adding a welcome accent of intrigue to the story’s broader teen comedy strokes.

Television writing and producing duo Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger make an impressive big screen debut here, in full control of their screenplay’s rhythm and cadence. Each character and story beat is thoughtfully arranged in service of building up the rollercoaster of emotions inherent in Simon’s journey, mostly without profiteering from the very real pain gay teens experience every day. A subplot about a classmate named Martin (Logan Miller) using Simon’s email correspondence with Blue as blackmail material is the closest the movie comes to exploiting its lead’s predicament. It’s a story thread that feels especially wrong when employed in service of laughs, working against an otherwise deeply good-natured movie.

But there’s virtually nothing not to love about the film save for a few narrative hiccups and the feeling that much of this has been done before. Except, it hasn’t. An early frontrunner for biggest surprise of the year, Greg Berlanti’s endlessly charismatic movie is at once heartening and steadying as to the station of representation on film. Hollywood’s major studios have come a long way; they have a long way to go still. In the meantime, enjoy the undeniable laughs and tears at hand. “Love, Simon” deserves every one.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: March 16, 2018
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Greg Berlanti
Screenwriter: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger
Starring: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, Keiynan Lonsdale, Logan Miller, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying)