‘Love, Simon,’ a heartwarming film despite flaws

Of the hundreds of movies featuring gay teenagers, only a few dozen feature out gay high-schoolers. The upbeat romantic comedy-drama “Love, Simon,” which opens in area theaters March 16, is a mainstream American gay-teen film. It takes a very conventional approach to telling a closeted youth’s coming-out story — and that is not a bad thing.

For the most part, this film is as affable and amiable as its title character.

Simon (Nick Robinson) introduces himself in a voiceover indicating how “normal” he is: “I’m just like you,” he exclaims, “except I have a huge-ass secret.” Simon’s huge-ass secret, of course, is that he is gay. And while he privately likes to ogle the strapping young guy doing lawn care across the street, he is not ready to come out.

Screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker adapted the film from Becky Albertalli’s novel, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” with Greg Berlanti directing. The film has all the hallmarks of the mainstream American teen film. There are parties where teens get drunk. There are huge, embarrassing moments that take place in front of the whole school. There are awkward scenes with parents and vice principals. There are leaked and shared emails. And mostly, there are misplaced crushes, followed by heartbreak and, yes, ultimately happiness.

Simon experiences all of these things at different times over the course of this enjoyable film and, while none of it is groundbreaking, it is nice that the main focus is on a gay teen, albeit a closeted one.

For most of “Love, Simon,” the main character is out to one person: Blue, a student at his high school, whom he connects with anonymously over email. The guys bond over their same-sex feelings in the safe space the email exchange provides. They inspire each other by expressing themselves privately in a way that leads them to find courage to do so in a more public way. The emails certainly change Simon’s disposition. He becomes happier and more confident by having a gay connection, albeit a virtual one. Berlanti generates sufficient anxiety and anticipation for viewers and Simon as he waits for every email from Blue.

Therefore, it is only a matter of time before Simon’s emails are accidently discovered. Martin (Logan Miller), a slightly obnoxious kid in the school play, blackmails Simon into helping Martin connect romantically with Abby (Alexandra Shipp), one of Simon’s best friends. Martin says he wants Abby to “like me for me,” a lesson that Simon needs to learn as he tries to figure out Blue’s identity.

The “be more you” messages in the film are delivered with an appropriately light touch, but the lessons of respect and tolerance involving some homophobic bullies at the school are rather clumsily presented. At least the film’s coming-out scenes (and there are a few) are sweet and satisfying. One moment, in which Simon screws up the courage to casually tell one of his friends he is gay, is quite charming. Likewise, it is hard not to cheer when Simon gets his very-public first gay kiss.

For all its appeal, however, “Love, Simon” does at times seem as bland and unremarkable as its protagonist. Simon tries so hard to fit in and be normal that he doesn’t realize his sexuality makes him more interesting. The film takes almost more than half its running time for Simon to self-actualize, finally picking up some steam once he admits to someone other than Blue that he is gay.

While Simon receives words of encouragement that are gratifying, it is notable (and slightly gratifying) that he also gets his comeuppance for some of his selfish and manipulative behavior. These moments deepen the teen characters and make them feel authentic, rather than just the stereotypes in other mainstream teen flicks.

Berlanti’s sensitive film also thankfully avoids being too lewd or crude. He treats his teen characters with respect, even when they behave badly. But mostly they are endearing.

“Love, Simon” never becomes cringe-inducing even when it tries too hard (some of the pop culture references will quickly become dated). While the mystery of Blue’s identity propels the story — and it would be novel for that to go unresolved — at least the reveal, when it does come, is heartwarming.

Nick Robinson makes Simon an ingratiating hero. While he comes off as a bit vanilla — even in an inspired and colorful gay-fantasy musical-dance sequence — he is meant to be so mainstream that any gay teen could identify with him. In support, Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel each have some touching scenes as Simon’s parents, and Natasha Rothwell gets all the best lines as Simon’s scene-stealing drama teacher.

In an era of marriage equality, a coming-out film may seem quaint or perhaps even unnecessary, but “Love, Simon” still has the capacity to inspire. It may wear its good intentions on its sleeve, but this feel-good film has no reason to feel ashamed about doing that.

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