Joel Danilewitz: To love Simon, to need Simon

Monday, March 26, 2018 - 6:59pm

Watching “Love, Simon” felt like arriving at a long-awaited destination. Something that I had been anticipating since my first encounter with a young adult movie, pretending that the vanilla, heterosexual leads weren’t actually heterosexual. And finally, when it manifested in the film starring actor Nick Robinson as the closeted-gay high school senior, it was everything. And still, it will never be enough.

Within the past three years, films with queer people, mostly gay cisgender men, have emerged into the mainstream. Last year’s Best Picture, “Moonlight,” was the first Best Picture winner revolving around an LGBTQ+-themed story (not to mention a solely Black cast). This year, “Call Me By Your Name,” a film about an Italian-Jewish boy falling in love with an older American man, was nominated for numerous accolades.

Yet these movies, despite having the themes that accompany typical coming-of-age stories, were still thematically heavy. Their target audiences were inevitably mature, with aesthetics and plots more concurrent with the conventions of an art-house movie. Conversely, “Love, Simon” follows the weepy, popcorn-indulgent and corny customs of an archetypal young adult movie.

I grew up watching Edward and Bella in “Twilight” recite lines that were cliché and stiff as cardboard, and I ate it up. I witnessed the histrionics that ensued after actress Emma Stone lied about losing her virginity in “Easy A,” and recited every quote in “The Fault in Our Stars” that filled theaters with sobbing adolescents.

While some of these movies did have deeply moving, tragic elements (see “The Fault in Our Stars”), they were all swollen with unrealistic melodrama meant to send hoards of teens to theaters. “Moonlight,” “Blue is the Warmest Color” and other LGBTQ+-oriented films depict the raw truth of being queer.

Just as these movies were necessary vehicles for the stories of real queer lives, so too is “Love, Simon,” and it’s something I felt like I always needed. I needed a cheesy story that had humor and heartbreak with a character who also felt pinned down by the burdens of keeping his sexuality a secret.

Walking out of “Love, Simon” felt gratifying. The film focuses on a gay teenager coming to terms with his sexuality and navigating his way out of the closet. It is also a love story, one which revolves around the email correspondence between him and the anonymous “Blue,” a fellow closeted student at his school. It’s also, remarkably, the first major studio movie to focus on a gay teenager.

I have grown up being taught that my sexuality is either a tragedy or a commodity. Each cinematic experience exhibits either the fraught life of someone queer in the form of a tragic drama or reduces the gay experience by portraying queer men as acerbic, sassy friends.

Finally, an entertaining, romantic teen comedy that somehow managed to encapsulate the truth of coming out while still making my friends and me giggle, weep and fawn over the attractive leads like any other movie. In one scene, right after Simon comes out to his straight girlfriend, she instructs him on how to talk about cute boys.

The palpable awkwardness but ultimate triumph of Simon figuring it out was both delightfully corny and acutely genuine. It further exemplified the movie’s ability to be just a little too sentimental while still circumscribing Simon as a relatable character.   

For me, this movie felt long-awaited, yet for a gay teen who hasn’t come out for whatever reason, it elucidates a message that, while mightily cliché, is very important: It does get better.

Are there aspects of the movie I wish could have been done differently? Of course. To begin with, the use of a masculine, cisgender white male in a fairly liberal area as a coming out story can barely be viewed as a proxy for universal tales of coming out. Furthermore, the use of a Black, gay character who has very little dimension and feels somewhat contrived from stereotype is a little less than desired.

In fact, prior to seeing “Love, Simon,” this was the preeminent misgiving I had with the film. From the onset, it seemed to engage minimally with actual queer culture, instead opting for a movie that was palatable for straight audiences.

However, it was bucking those same audiences who, for years, have weaponized gay representation as a pernicious form of normalizing homosexuality (as I’ve said, I have seen nearly every young adult movie with straight protagonists, and I have yet to magically become straight).

In the end, it still incorporated aspects of being queer, from the struggles of coming out to a musical number featuring singer Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Perhaps it wasn’t as much Houston as I wanted (frankly, I’m still waiting for a movie that features an intense lip sync battle to her classic “So Emotional”), and it may not have been revolutionary, but it was an incremental step in breaking down the barriers that have been erected by homophobia and misunderstanding.

And for LGBTQ+ teenagers, whom are twice as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers, the wonder of seeing themselves illuminated on screen will provide hope for their futures and validate their identities.

Joel Danilewitz can be reached at joeldan@umich.edu.