When “Love, Simon” starts, it’s a little jarring. Visually, the film uses a vocabulary of sticky-sweet teen romcom, a beautiful, heterosexual nuclear family, a young protagonist who just isn’t understood and a curated, too-keenly teenager wardrobe and bedroom out of “The O.C” or “Teen Wolf.” But with director Greg Berlanti at the helm, perhaps that should come as no surprise. However, when the film decides to reveal the gag (which doesn’t take long) that high schooler and protagonist Simon Spier (Nick Robinson, “Melissa & Joey”) is in the closet, it takes a second to adjust.
So often, queer cinema finds its leads on the fringes, or at least out of the spotlight of the mainstream. Elio and Oliver of “Call Me By Your Name” are sequestered in a small Italian village; Jack and Ennis of “Brokeback Mountain” hide in the eponymous range; Carol and Therese of “Carol” can only consummate their love on the road, in motels. One of the best elements of “Love, Simon” is Simon’s presence in a world that is accessible. The film firmly roots him in his locale — a pretty, spacious Georgia suburb. In some ways, it feels like tacet acceptance before the plot even gets in motion.
In other ways, however, the clean world of the teen romcom and depictions of Simon’s queerness come in tension. Robinson checks all the boxes of what one could expect of a straight male lead, the only “clear” signal of his queerness being his participation in theatre: Does that mean the film falls prey to heteronormativity or does that mean that gay people are able to be represented in new ways on screen? Certainly, the world Berlanti crafts has space for characters that embody “traditional” ideas of homosexuality on screen, like one of Simon’s classmates, Ethan (Clark Moore, “TURN: Washington’s Spies”). Robinson’s less than macho but still assuredly masculine performance, then, is puzzling.
While there is room for criticism about the power structures that underpin “Love, Simon,” they actually allow Robinson to express his indignation to those that oppress him. Queer leads usually have to operate in the shadows, or placate, or acquiesce to those that discover their sexuality. They are forced to resign themselves to their lot— but not Simon. His first emotion, both when he is outed (online, no less) and viciously mocked in the cafeteria afterward, is rage. He writhes in his sheets in the first case and confronts the jocks in the second, with no trace of world-crushing shame or anguish in his face in either scene. Rarely is gay anger shown as confidently and justifiably as it is in “Love, Simon.”
The film is at its best as it tracks Simon’s coming-out, despite its billing as a teen romcom. Since the romance in “Love, Simon” develops over email, it takes a backseat to the real-life drama of the second and third acts. Berlanti gives Simon three possible love interests over the course of the film, which keeps some interest, but when Simon and his crush, Blue, finally meet in real life, there’s something missing. The excitement, and quite honestly, the erotic passion of what is a long-anticipated first kiss elude them. The boys kiss with no intensity or handsiness that the moment warrants. Despite these flaws, “Love, Simon” enters the much-needed, near non-existent category of feel-good queer films. I can imagine thousands of queer kids getting so much from this film, from seeing a new possibility of being gay in our time.