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Love changes everything – ‘Love, Simon’

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Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story. I love narratives that allow me to follow young people as they stumble through the assorted obstacles that growing up can scatter in our paths. And when you add in a little first love action, well … I’m all in.

But there’s a certain kind of coming-of-age story – and a certain kind of first love – that’s never really been explored in a mainstream studio film.

“Love, Simon” – based on the novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli and directed by Greg Berlanti - is the story of a high school student who is navigating the waters of adolescence and trying to become the person he wants to be – all while hiding his true self. See, Simon is gay and in the closet. He’s struggling to find the courage to follow his heart, but despite having seemingly every advantage – a loving family, close friends, a relatively progressive school – it’s still not easy.

Simon (Nick Robinson, “Everything, Everything”) is a pretty typical kid. His mom Emily (Jennifer Garner, “The Tribes of Palos Verdes”) and dad Jack (Josh Duhamel, “Transformers: The Last Knight”) both love him very much. He gets along great with his younger sister Nora (Talitha Bateman, “Geostorm”).

And he’s got great friends. He’s known Leah (Katherine Langford, TV’s “13 Reasons Why”) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) since they were toddlers, and while Abby (Alexandra Shipp, “Tragedy Girls”) is a relatively new addition to the crew, she’s become an integral member of the gang.

But when an anonymous letter appears on a Tumblr page devoted to their school’s secrets and confessions – a letter from a teen keeping his own sexuality a secret – Simon is inspired to act. He reaches out to establish contact with this mysterious schoolmate – known only as Blue – and confesses his own secret, calling himself Jacques and establishing an epistolary relationship.

But when an overbearing fellow student named Martin (Logan Miller, “A Dog’s Purpose”) catches wind of Simon’s secret, his life becomes even more complicated as he’s forced to delicately dance around his family and friends in an effort to maintain his secret – all while trying to figure out Blue’s real identity as he falls in love with someone he’s never seen.

And the more people that know a secret, the harder it is to keep it.

Part of what makes “Love, Simon” remarkable is how, well … unremarkable it is. There’s none of the self-seriousness that you might expect with what is – in its way – a pioneering film. This isn’t a story burdened by the relative importance of its subject matter. In fact, it’s almost the opposite – this is a breezy YA adaptation, a sweet teen romcom that just happens to feature a gay protagonist.

One could argue that it’s a too-perfect scenario, one where the circumstances are aligned to ensure that the only conflicts are interpersonal rather than built on underlying social and societal difficulties. Simon struggles, to be sure, but he’s operating in a largely progressive sphere. There’s a Pollyanna-esque quality to his circumstances – sure, it’s hard, but he faces none of the larger issues that many LGBT youth must confront.

But again, this movie isn’t meant to be important. It’s meant to be funny and sweet and filled with the sorts of emotions that teenagers have – emotions that run hot and cold (and utterly irrationally). Heartstrings are plucked with unapologetic abandon.

So yeah – there was some dust in the theater on more than one occasion.

“Love, Simon” is anchored by a dynamite performance from its lead. Robinson is note-perfect as Simon; there’s an endearing awkwardness to the character that is enhanced nicely by the actor’s natural charm. There’s a real sincerity to him – an innocence that skates right up to the edge of being too much, but never quite crosses the threshold.

That wholesome vibe permeates the whole movie. Langford, Lendeborg and Shipp are a dynamic trio, bringing a verve and excitement to their performances that is significantly superior to what you often get in this sort of teen romance. Garner and Duhamel are exactly the kind of nice you want for their roles; attractive and engaging, but also kind of vanilla. Miller is an abrasive jerk and works well as a somewhat atypical villain. The movie also features great supporting turns by Tony Hale (TV’s “Veep”) and Natasha Rothwell (TV’s “Insecure”) as Simon’s vice-principal and drama teacher, respectively.

Ultimately, the existence of a movie like “Love, Simon” is a good thing. It really is meaningful that a story like this one, one that wouldn’t have sniffed a nationwide release like this even 10 years ago, is given the standard teen romance treatment. It’s a big deal because it isn’t being treated like a big deal. It matters for LGBT kids to see representations of themselves in the wider culture that aren’t the usual stereotypes or caricatures; with this, they get to see themselves as the same stereotypes and caricatures as every other teen movie.

“Love, Simon” won’t set the world on fire, but that’s OK. It’ll make you laugh a lot and cry a little, and somewhere, maybe a young person will see it and finds some measure of comfort. And it’s a hell of a lot better than a lot of these recent teen romances have proven to be. All in all, a pretty good movie.

It is, in a word, lovely.

[4.5 out of 5]

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