I once sat in a studio pitch meeting — this was a decade or so ago — as the gathered powers debated whether they’d buy our Latino-centered family comedy. I’d written a script about a gay Chicano teen that was considered too edgy, so I was brought on to write for a a much milder story about a young Latina and her overprotective father. (This rather bland concept was still considered “brave” and “a risk.”)
As the execs sipped cappuccinos and opined about whether mainstream audiences would show up for a Mexican-American heroine, my mind drifted to the past weekend when I’d been shopping in a Target in my hometown, an LA suburb which like many has a predominantly Latino population. I was flipping through some magazines when I looked over and saw a small girl standing in front of a wall of movie covers featuring Emma Roberts and Miley Cyrus.
Writers are supposed to hang back casually at pitch meetings when the execs talk business, but there was an opening and I took it. “I think when a little Latina looks up at a display of DVD covers, she deserves to see a face looking back that looks like hers.” Everyone at the table got silent, then there were nods and slow considerations. It felt like even though I was the only Mexican-American in the room, only now was I given a place at the conversation table. We sold the pitch. After the meeting, one of our producers said, “I really liked what you said. That was important for the room.”
In 2008, it was still too much of a gamble to greenlight this “diverse family” film, and the movie never got made. Yet that moment stayed with me; I was surprised that an observation I made so matter-of-factly was received as though it was a revolutionary marketing proposal.
I thought of that moment again when I watched the new studio film about a gay male teen, “Love, Simon.” Ten years later, we’re at a moment when LGBT adolescents can stand outside a multiplex, look at a movie poster and see a main character looking back with a face that looks like theirs.
I mean it’s still a white male in the center of that poster, with the people of color surrounding him in adorably perky poses. We’re not that far yet. But so far there’s no major right-wing picketing forming for “Love, Simon” that would block a curious teenager from stepping up to a theater’s digital ticket kiosk and heading into a matinee about a boy who falls in love with another boy.
Of course, teens today can see same-sex kisses, passionate ones, on everything from “Riverdale” to a Netflix binge of “Sens8”, and most know how to conjure up an “adult” image on their phone with a whisk. And does a kid really buy a theater ticket as much as use Putlocker? But, as a measure of how far we’ve come, when I was their age, and I heard there might be a tv movie where two good-looking actors would even just hug in a special way, I had to shut my door, turn down the volume and be ready to switch to “Charlie’s Angels” if anyone came within five feet of my door.
So the act of “going out” to a studio movie about a kid “coming out” — that’s still something, it’s surprisingly, perhaps, still a first.
Coming-out stories featuring LGBTQ youth, though, aren’t really new as a genre of film. In the independent film world, they’ve been around for decades, so much so that it’s not unusual to even see parodies at gay film festivals like Outfest. And a lot of LGBT filmmakers have contributed to the familiar “straight” teen comedy — “Heathers,” “The Craft”, “Jawbreaker”, every single VH-1 variation of “Bring It On” all display queer sensibility.
You can imagine why a lot of gay filmmakers have been attracted to the genre. For many LGBTQ persons, high school is performative. If you haven’t come out, every day is a new play, complete with the construction of a persona that will “pass”, self-directed mirror rehearsals of your walk, monitoring of the pitch of your voice and studying what straight kids do with an eye to reproduce each casual nuance to avoid detection. For the student who does come out, it’s the realization that people watch you a little bit extra; you have an audience, whether you like it or not. Perhaps for some of today’s gay teens, you may even feel like you have to be a role model, but that’s exactly it: a “role.”
So no wonder many gay filmmakers recreated the stage setting of high school in films, but now armed with a quiver of wickedly witty arrows to aim at every jock and entitled princess they ever knew. Campy sensibilities were served up like desserts on a cafeteria tray in many teen films; ‘Get Over it” from 2001 is a particularly notable example.
And yet, in most of the movies and shows (“Dawson’s Creek” and “Glee”) that were transmitted by “mainstream” sources — studio releases, network television — and even with out writers and directors behind them, the gay character was still cast as a sidekick, a dash of insouciance and flair. (This had some real-life roots: LGBT kids, often because they have to watch themselves so much, become astute observers of the way other kids perform themselves, and of adolescent social politics. They develop that keen and necessary ear for hypocrisy you want in a supporting character.)
In “Love Simon,” a film is built around that teen-movie archetype, the Sensitive Sarcastic Gay Sidekick. It’s tastefully, thoughtfully produced, carefully cast. If it never quite hits the heights it aims for, it’s not because it isn’t well-outfitted. In fact, any messiness in the film is found in the daily outfit Simon (Nick Robinson) wears; his hoodie, denim jacket and bedhead-hair fall just this side of “bro.” Simon’s parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) are sweet and earnest, though we don’t really know what they do to live in such a giant Restoration Hardware catalog home. The scenes are clearly constructed within an inch of their page; nothing comes in from the margins. If you’re looking for something about LGBT youth culture today that’s more anarchic, more outside-the-lines, more startling, this isn’t that movie, and that seems to be the point: widest four-quadrants audience appeal possible.
On its own terms, and in comparison to other mainstream teen films, how is it? If I was to use the ultimate yardstick of John Hughes Romantic Elation, the classic final scenes with Jake and Samantha (Michael Schoeffling and Molly Ringwald) in “Sixteen Candles” where everything else fades away but their long-awaited kiss, I’d give “Love, Simon”: fourteen candles. In the pantheon of endearing teen heroes epitomized by Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless”, I’d say it’s “Clue-ish.” In the Sass Hall of Fame that is the glorious “Bring It On,” it is “Needs to Bring It A Little More.” And as a teacher who incorporates LGBT lessons in my curriculum and has mentored some awesome gay youth, I’d give it a solid B+ or, to be kinder, “A-“ if I grade on a curve. (Let’s not forget there are some real clunkers in the teen movie cosmos.)
From just a love story point of view, there’s a cinematic structural problem in “Love, Simon” , one it struggles mightily to overcome, and it’s tied into the major conceit of the novel. As it turns out, we’re only secondarily in a coming-out movie; primarily, we’re in the rare yet musty air of the Epistolary Love Story. In other words, we will hear love letters, or falling-in-love letters by two characters who are separated by fate, though we in the audience know it’s only a matter of about 90 minutes until the universe will bring them together.
The absolute best example of this genre is also my choice for best Christmas film ever: “The Shop Around the Corner” with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. Two store clerks don’t realize they are writing “lonelyhearts” letters to each other. In person they repel; in whispered narration over foggy-lensed close-ups of their handwriting, they are passionately, charmingly in love. (It was later remade as the relatively charmless Hanks/Ryan 90s film, “You’ve Got Mail.”) While “It’s a Wonderful Life” can allow you to wallow in sentiment, “The Shop Around the Corner” is a glass of vintage champagne.
Other films in the back-and-forth love letters category include “84 Charing Cross Road,” “Dear John,” and a personal guilty pleasure, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in “The Lake House.” All films that never quite hit the mark, because of while we accept epistolary novels quite easily — they have a propelling momentum — epistolary movies often come off as a little arch.
Yet if they are going to work, we usually have to spend time with both letter-writers, fall in love with each because we are privy to their inner voices and their outward beauty, and then root for them to meet, or discover each other. Will their physical selves have the chemistry of their “correspondence selves?” Who can’t relate to that in the dating app age?
In “Love, Simon”, one half of that approach is necessarily hidden from the audience. True to the YA novel Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens by Becky Albertalli, possibly too true to it, Simon is a young, closeted man — not self-hating exactly but not yet ready to self-disclose — who writes emails to an anonymous guy at his school he discovers on a campus gossip site. “Blue” is wondering if he should brave the waters of coming-out, and his loneliness resonates with Simon, who as digital nom de plume “Jacques”, begins to unload his secrets like he’s pulling textbooks out of a really heavy backpack.
All goes well in this budding romance, until Martin (Logan Miller), a real twerp of a fellow, discovers the emails (‘Kids, always remember to log-off campus computers!”) and blackmails Simon, hoping to extract some help in “getting with” new girl Abby (the highly appealing Alexandra Shipp). This not-quite-believable-but-let’s-go-with-it premise delays and even endangers the chances that “Jacques” and “Blue” will meet, so the movie must keep Blue’s identity secret, even to us.
This allows for some fun as we, along with Simon, keep considering various characters and wonder: Is he the one? There’s at a few twists, cleverer when you look back then when you’re watching. (You’re happy with the eventual choice — “Blue” has perhaps the funniest line in the movie — but don’t be surprised if there’s another very skilled actor who, in just a brief exchange, has you rooting for him.) Greg Berlanti, with his extensive television work, knows how to do the sleight-of-hand essential to this film; this director really knows the art of the “misdirect.”
But it’s also a plot experiment that fights against the rules of most love story alchemy. If we only really know one side of the pair, we can root for him, but we are probably not going to have the “lift” at the end when we’ve been gradually falling in movie infatuation with both characters (and actors) and are rooting for both. In the book, you get to know each more thoroughly; all the very heavy lifting of the plot scaffolding in “Love, Simon” — in other words, all the work it takes to make an implausible situation plausible — means you only get snippets from the novel’s more detailed emails. And let’s face it: no director yet has really made a jumping cursor on a white screen sexy. In “The Shop Around the Corner”, you can practically smell the perfume on the envelopes. In romance, texture is everything, and in movie romance, so is seeing both objects of affection.
(Think about the “little things” that help us fall in love with an actor’s character in a love story, and they require that actor to be on-screen: Robert Redford’s tousled hair in “The Way We Were”, Diane Keaton’s stammer in “Annie Hall”, even Heath Ledger’s wrenching alley cry in “Brokeback Mountain.”)
So with a co-lead who’s mostly kept off-stage, the focus lands squarely on Simon. Nick Robinson negotiates many moods in the film, but there’s still something hamstrung in his performance. As a son, his biggest major quibble with his parents and adorable little sister is what they should binge-watch together (when Jennifer Garner suggests “The Affair”, the teacher in me considered a call to Child Protective Services.) As an adolescent, Simon’s cool chalkboard bedroom walls, and a not quite believable fixation with early British pop read as more character-quirk than passion. (He’s also curiously neutered for a teen-age boy — the messages between him and Blue are strangely chaste.)
Simon’s friends are funny, his first-beer at-a-party scene is served like cinematic comfort food, and his school life involves mostly goofy, mostly caring teachers and administrators (Tony Hale as the buddy-craving principal makes the most of every scene he’s in.) We don’t quite escape the world of gay film clichés, because Simon and his friends, like the kids in “Glee”, “The Real O’Neals” and now “Rise” are musical theater geeks…kind of? There seems to be some satire or commentary that these kids are all putting on “Cabaret”, but that’s not really satirical…it’s pretty on the nose. Why Simon loves this world or even this play doesn’t get much of an exploration and it plays as a set-up for a joke. (For an example of how in just a few quick strokes you can portray a student production with both affection and sharp wit, see “Lady Bird.”)
Instead we keep having to come back to the annoying blackmail plot, and in 2018, it feels creaky. Not that there aren’t still important stories to tell about LGBT youth pain and suffering (And it must be daunting to follow after the artistic sophistications of “Moonlight” and “Call Me By Your Name.”) It’s just that all the side, supporting characters — the place where you’d usually find that witty gay observer — are funny and interesting and at several points I just wanted to follow them for a while and be free of the more cumbersome story points we had to dutifully tick through.
Eventually things do loosen up a bit. It’s not the fault of “Love, Simon” that its warm, empathetic parent scenes have to follow the piercing pathos Michael Stuhlbarg and Timothee Chalamet give us in “CMBYN”, but they still seem a little too weightless. Of course, Mom has her moment of quiet acceptance, then “Handsome but Befuddled” Dad has his tender moment. You could probably say the film is virtuous by not tugging on our heartstrings too much in these scenes, but I don’t know. In a coming-out movie, I like a good cry with the parents at the end. It’s cathartic.
Fortunately, Simon and Nick Robinson become more than a calculated attempt to make a mainstream multiplex-ready gay teen who looks like a clerk at a Hollister store; his vulnerability in waiting for his Dude Charming becomes quite touching. Plots get resolved, apologies are made, and a decent amount of jokes land without making you wince. (Well, not quite. Though Clark Moore steals a lot of his scenes as gender-fluid Ethan, he’s saddled with a mean-spirited joke about male anatomy that doesn’t feel as ‘woke’ as his character. And the hilarious Natasha Rothwell as the drama teacher gets maybe one sardonic meltdown too many; I’d love to have seen the subtler, mellower notes she seems capable of delivering.)
It’s in the final scenes that you see how subversive the movie is, and it’s hard to separate this subversion from how conventional it is. You realize guys like him have so often been portrayed left-of-center and frequently, off-screen. But in the end, you realize how squarely he’s been in the center of the frame the whole time. When all the plot mechanics do finally line up, it’s really clear that this time, it’s all the heterosexual characters in the film who exist as supports. Turns out everyone knows what it’s like to go on a blind date, to be stood up, and who you have to be as a friend in order to pick somebody up off the floor when their facing heartbreak.
So they take their marks and hope for Simon, and you do too. And that’s been the aim of the film from the beginning: Can a boy-meets-boy story be as acceptable to moviegoers as a prom tux, a detention, a school carnival? In this “Weekend Box Office Report” age, we’re all savvy enough to know that the future of more films like lies in how many tickets are bought to this particular, brightly-lit ride.
“Good luck, Simon,” you may want to whisper. We’re all rooting for you. Because some kid who’s been staring at your face in the movie posters has now been given a chance to see himself staring back. He may be sitting in the TV room with his family, and when the commercial for your film comes on, unlike many before him, he might not feel like he has to hide. In fact, maybe this kid just takes the remote control, turns the volume up, and says to his family, “Listen!”