The movie LOVE, SIMON moved me to tears a few times. I especially appreciated the portrayal of loving, understanding parents that I myself never had at 17 years of age (though they have long since come around). It was interesting and compelling how the use of email and the Internet were central to the story, given how teenagers these days are bound so closely to cell phone and computer technology. The anonymity maintained between the main character of Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a closeted high school senior, and his mysterious, online love interest set up some cleverly written intrigue and suspense in the narrative.
While Simon was portrayed as a relatively masculine white male within a suburban upper middle income family, much of the cast, including extras within the high school setting, were people of color. I could see how the filmmaker and writers were appealing to a white mainstream audience while also trying to be racially/ethnically inclusive, a delicate balance to strike. I imagine some viewers will be critical of the director Greg Berlanti’s and writers Isaac Aptaker’s and Elizabeth Berger’s portraying of diversity or lack thereof, such as having a wealthy white male be the central character. It would have been daring and interesting if he were, say, overtly feminine and from a less privileged background. I do take the movie to task with its flawed, conventional messages about gender and heteronormativity, which I will discuss later. However, Nick Robinson as Simon acted with such sincerity and sensitivity that I found myself soon not caring about his demographics. The whole cast delivered solid performances. The spunky, no-nonsense African American drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell) stood out for me in particular. A close second was Alexandra Shipp as Abby Suso, one of Simon’s close friends, also African American. She was allowed to share some back story, being a child of divorce and new to the school, having grown up out of the area. These experiences I related to and I know many other viewers surely did and will as well.
The only stilted, somewhat two-dimensional character was Tony Hale as Vice Principal Mr. Worth. I would have liked to see him more developed, like he started to seem but then was stopped short by the script writing. He ended up remaining annoyingly chummy, awkward, and sexually ambiguous. This last attribute was likely the director’s intention, that and having Mr. Worth provide comic relief.
Funny, awkward moments peppered the script, balancing levity with very serious subject matter, including blackmail– an age-old issue for queer people– by an insecure peer. I found Simon and his friends navigating a more complex social landscape because of cyberspace, which did not exist for me back in high school. At the same time, the movie’s school campus appeared quite tolerant and safe for gay/queer students, as a very feminine, black gay male character, Ethan (Clark Moore), showed while delivering withering one-liners to homophobic peers, without fear of retaliation. Very refreshing, even if accurately reflective of only some actual schools in large cities across America.
Simon is well-adjusted in this world of school and home life and he makes it a point to stress how “normal” he is. A fantasy scene has him walking along as people wave banners and flamboyantly dance along with a toned-down Simon before he states, “Maybe not that gay.” Um, not that gay?? This leads to my one strong criticism of the film: it’s theme of heteronormativity and conventional gender traits as being equal to well-adjusted and “normal.” What homophobic, transphobic poppycock! How narrow-minded and…boring. And while Simon’s black, femme gay peer Ethan (Moore) is present here and there, he is always single and off to the side, token, not even a friend of Simon’s, except perhaps just beginning to be towards the end. The director and writer played it safe and, in doing so, lost me at a deeper level or place in myself. True embracing of diversity would have allowed for celebratory, front-and-center portrayals of more gender queer (e.g., flamboyant, “super gay,” femme, butch), even non-binary folk. Everyone except Ethan is clearly binary, cis-gendered, “normal.” Ah, well. I guess it will still have to be another movie where I and many others are fully reflected.
It felt at least partially affirming to watch a mostly well-written, gay-themed movie with good production values in a theater I frequent, where largely blockbusters are shown. Slowly, inroads are being made, even if LOVE, SIMON is just a good start towards more stories and images of positive, wide-ranging queerdom in mainstream American movies. I’ll take it, thank you, and still keep expecting better and more.