- This film review is going to be far more personal than many others I have written by simple virtue of the fact that I have, as an out gay man of many years standing, lived the life of Simon. Not exactly of course since much has changed for the better in the 35 years since I finished high school, but enough that this film touched me deeply and incredibly personally in a way few others have.
Coming out is never easy.
It may have become almost commonplace in our far more accepting age – yes despite Trump, rabid Evangelicals frothing at the mouth about perversion and sin, and a new cruel conservatism, things are better – but it remains, for those who have experienced it, one of the most excruciatingly difficult things a gay person will ever do.
It is also joyously liberating, ecstatically affirming and as one emotionally-powerful scene in Love, Simon beautifully demonstrates, liking exhaling a long-held breath that immediately relaxes and settles you in ways you never saw coming, but it is not easy.
That is made abundantly clear in Love, Simon, the adaptation of Becky Albertali’s bestselling YA book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – the title captures perfectly how much of an uphill struggle it can be to understand and accept who you are in the face of a heteronormative tsunami of counter-programming – which gives us an exquisitely insightful look at what coming out means to a gay person, especially at a time when the majority of people see it as no big deal.
While this is a wonderful thing in many ways since an accepting, smiling shrug of the shoulders and a loving “I’ve always known” are far preferable to torrents of abuse and hate, it has somewhat eclipsed the fact that, societal advances aside, coning out still has to happen at all.
Or that it is such a big deal in a society where no one is asked to come out as straight and where you are not, as a member of the straight majority, effectively required to lay out and subject your life to the scrutiny and acceptance of others in the most agonisingly personal of ways.
Love, Simon humourously touches on this rite of passage for many gay people with an hilarious scene where the three best friends of Simon, sensitively and touchingly portrayed by Nick Robinson, Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendebord Jr.) and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), are all imagined in variously awkward coming out scenes that capture perfectly what it is like to have to admit to your parents that you don’t have sex with members of the opposite sex.
Yes, think of it in those terms, and you’ll understand in some small way, why it is that coming out is unnervingly a big, uncomfortable thing to do for everyone, and for Simon, a 17 year old senior in his final year of high school, who is afraid of everything changing but who knows that change is going to come one way or another.
He finds the strength to contemplate coming out through his friendship with “Blue”, a fellow student at Creekwood High who outs himself anonymously on the school’s gossip-heavy blog in a way that gets the rumour mill going out as full strength but still preserves his still-valued and necessary place in the closet. (For those who think hiding in the closet, itself an execrable term that does not justice to what gay people go through pre-coming out, is cowardly, think again; it’s almost obligatory given the time it takes many of us to grapple with the enormity of how different we are to the great straight majority.)
His email exchanges with Blue become a precious safety net for Simon, a way to admit to himself and others that he is gay while keeping his life just the way it is – the son and brother in a ridiculously well-adjusted, happy family with Mum Emily (Jennifer Garner), dad Jack (Josh Duhamel) and sister Nora (Talitha Bateman), member of a closeknit group of friends and a young, warmhearted, reserved but friendly young man with an exciting life laid out for him.
He doesn’t want to disown being gay, but he’s a teenager after all, and it’s a lot to deal with, and as his mother movingly observes in the scene about holding breath and then exhaling, a game changer in so many ways that doesn’t fundamentally alter who you are.
Which is true, but it feels like everything changes in the instant you come out in ways both good and bad – more of the former, less of the latter for many but that’s not always the case thanks to the homophobically idiotic among us – a washing-machine of turbulent emotions that can feel almost impossible to navigate at first.
Which is why it’s important to retain ownership of coming out, so it happens when you’re ready for it.
Simon, unfortunately, thanks to Martin (Logan Miller), a socially-awkward guy at his school who only has eyes for the beautiful Abby and who blackmails Simon when he comes across the emails between him and Blue on a shared computer in the library, has that taken from him, and much of the drama in Love, Simon, finely-calibrated, nuanced drama it has to be said, comes from the ever-widening mess caused by Martin’s cruelly clumsy attempts to shoehorn a place into a romantic narrative of which he can never be a part.
Caught in an emotional tumult that is amplified by the consequences of Martin’s ill-thought actions playing out agonisingly visibly on social media, Simon is thrown at first, struggling to find any kind of reaction that makes sense to him and which will resonate to his friends and family and most critically to Blue who runs a mile, and more, when everything blows up.
What makes Love, Simon such an tremendously affecting piece of storytelling, not simply for gay people who will find much with which they can identify but anyone with a beating heart, is how it frames the process of coming out as an integral part of growing up.
Sure it’s a whole extra step straight people don’t have to undertake, but then all of us at one point or another have to make a decision – do we wholeheartedly buy into the decisions made by other people about our lives or do we take a stand and live according to who are and matters most to us.
However that plays out for a person, and each of us, if we’re honest, come to that life-changing crossroads sooner or later, Love, Simon is a poignant reminder that not only is all that turmoil and emotional messiness survivable but that it can also be affirming in ways we never expect, an exhalation of breath that leads to another breath and then another until all that hiding and kowtowing to other peoples’ agendas falls way for good and you are living an authentic life on your terms.
Love, Simon does play up the more inspirational aspects of the story since it is a life-affirming tale after all, and who doesn’t want a happy ending, but it retains a soul-searingly resonant truth throughout, thanks to its willingness to tackle what coming out means head-on and how fallible we all are, never quite handling things as well as we want.
Kudos to Nick Robinson for his intimately truthful portrayal that struck so many chords with me that tears were flowing far more often than I expected especially when he had to come out to his parents, friends and yes when true love is finally allowed to stand openly and proud in the delightfully schmaltzy final act that you won’t begrudge for a second, but also to supporting players like Tony Hale as Vice Principal Worth and drama teacher Ms. Albright (Natasha Rothwell), who remind us that there are laughs to be had, even when life looks like it’s going to hell in a glitter-filled basket around us.
Perhaps the most profound legacy of Love, Simon, which finally gives members of the LGBTQI community the kind of high school romance we’ve been missing all these years (although there are many more diverse stories yet to be told), is that it powerfully demonstrates how integral being real to ourselves and having that accepted that by others is, and how society needs to heed the fact that the world is not as simple as many would like to believe.
I wish this film had happened when I was in school, or even well into my twenties and thirties – yes I was a late gay bloomer but I was encumbered by quite a lot of religious baggage – but I am happy and heartened that it is happening now, and that conversations of the kind Love, Simon presents are being had, and I can only hope, and yes despite everything hope still springs eternal, that things will only get better, not just for the Simons (and Andrews) of this world, but everyone who doesn’t fit the mold and needs to find a place in the world that is theirs and theirs alone.