Love, Simon is undeniably an important film. After all, a gay teen rom-com – given a wide release by a studio! – doesn’t come out every day. If my social media feed since the film’s stateside release is anything to go by, the precise measure of the film’s importance is up for debate. I’ve seen Love, Simon criticised for being too white, not gay enough, too preachy, too rich. I’ve seen people dispute the significance of its release by pointing to – and I promise you I’m not making this shit up – Dog Day Afternoon as a point of comparison.
I’ve largely avoided engaging with this debate. In part, that’s because I’m tired of queer pop culture being consistently criticised for not reflecting the author’s personal experience of queerness (see: all the crap heaped upon the superlative series Looking). That’s a little snarky; I’m sure there are legitimate critiques to make about the commercialisation or whatever of queerness. But all this is a distraction of an unimpeachable truth: Love, Simon is a fucking great film.
Love, Simon may be adapted from a novel – Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – by screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, but its primary reference seems to be a largely-extinct genre of film: the wholesome romantic comedy. Films by the likes of Nora Ephron and Garry Marshall that populated multiplexes for the ‘90s …at least, until they degraded into either overly-romantic, Nicholas Sparks schmaltz or crude ‘comedies’ starring Katherine Heigl and/or Gerard Butler. Rom-coms are a rarity now, but Love, Simon bucks the trend by demonstrating what made them so popular.
For starters, it’s legitimately funny. While none of its leads – Nick Robinson as the titular Simon, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp and Jorge Lenderborg Jr. as his friends – are particularly funny actors, Love, Simon has plenty of comedic support from its supporting cast: particularly Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell as Simon’s principal and drama teacher, respectively. The film is prone to occasional, Ally McBeal-esque fantasy sequences that should have been cringey but are perfectly executed by director Greg Berlanti. ‘90s-era rom-coms emphasised the comedic as much as the romantic, and Love, Simon follows their lead, ensuring you’re laughing as often as you’re crying.
Rom-coms needed a hook – invariably involving deception to some degree – to distinguish them from their competitors. Love, Simon has two; three if you count the gay thing. The first hook is a penpal romance à la You’ve Got Mail: Simon befriends – and eventually falls for – an anonymous closeted classmate over email. The second hook is decidedly darker, more Victim than ‘90s rom-com, as an insufferable classmate of Simon’s learns his secret and blackmails him into matchmaking mode lest he be outed. The tension between these two storylines creates an engine for romance, laughs and bad behaviour in the spirit of the subgenre.
Cleverly, these two hooks also allow the film’s narrative structure to emphasise the challenges of being a queer teenager. Simon spends much of the film searching for clues to his penpal’s identity, basing his investigation on the smallest of comments and gestures (a remark about Oreos, or the way someone looks at their phone). It’s an incredibly effective evocation of trying to feel out someone’s sexuality before gay bars and Grindr makes the process altogether easier. Similarly, the blackmailing of Simon forces him to perform for his friends, presenting a fake, manipulative version of himself; the queer resonances of this should be obvious.
Above all, though, what makes Love, Simon soar is its ability to negotiate the emotional moments. Teen films are already about the enormity of emotions at that age, and that’s only exaggerated by the rom-com trappings (where everyone is so well-off that how you feel is everything). Rather than overplay his hand, however, Berlanti carefully underlines each big emotion with a subtle pause that draws his audience in without overdoing it. There are so many of these little beats in the film, where you can sense Simon’s heart stopping or swelling through the subtlest formal techniques. It’s bigger than life, but only just.
If there’s any justice, Love, Simon will be a trailblazer. Not just for mainstream, gay films (though that would be great), but for a rom-com revival. A return to a genre that understands the roots of what made these films work, and how they can succeed again.