Film Review: Love, Simon

by Carrie Kahn on March 16, 2018

You’ll love Simon, and his movie, too

High school senior Simon (Nick Robinson) has a secret. 

“I’m done living in a world where I don’t get to be who I am. I deserve a great love story, and I want someone to share it with,” so declares high school senior Simon Spier, in Love, Simon, the new teen romance that bears his name, and, of course, he’s right. It took until 2018 for a major studio (in this case, 20th Century Fox) to release a picture about a gay teen romance, but the wait was worth it. Charming and authentic, Love, Simon takes the John Hughes era teen film template and updates it into something fresh, funny, smart, and much, much more inclusive.

Becky Albertalli, who authored the 2015 award-winning young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda on which the picture is based, was no doubt thrilled to learn the adapted screenplay would be penned by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, Emmy-nominated writers from today’s hottest I’m-not-crying-you’re-crying show, This is Us. And with Greg Berlanti, a prolific TV writer/producer who specializes in teen entertainment (Everwood; Dawson’s Creek; Riverdale; Supergirl) in the director’s chair, Love, Simon has solid and enviable credentials for bringing a seldom told story to screen.

That story, of course, concerns Simon (Nick Robinson) and, as he calls it, his “big ass secret.” Simon has known he’s gay since he was 13, but, as his senior year winds down, he has yet to come out to any of his friends or family in his upscale, well appointed Atlanta suburb. When a fellow student anonymously posts on the high school’s blog confessing the same secret, Simon, under the pseudonym Jacques, begins corresponding with “Blue,” and finally is able to confide in someone who completely understands his situation. When Simon’s emails inadvertently are discovered by the socially awkward Martin (Logan Miller, Before I Fall), Martin blackmails Simon, insisting that Simon help set Martin up with new student Abby (Alexandra Shipp) in exchange for Martin’s silence.

Old friends Simon (Nick Robinson) and Leah (Katherine Langford) share a quiet moment. 

The conflict and stakes thus established, the rest of the plot unfolds with nods to classics of the genre: there’s the my-parents-are-out-of-town Halloween party with too much drinking, the preparation for the Big Show, as Simon, Martin, and their friends participate in a production of Cabaret, led by an end-of-her-rope, and very funny theater teacher (Natasha Rothwell), the bullying jocks who get their comeuppance, and, of course, the drama of who-likes-who in Simon’s tight knit circle of friends, a level of turmoil made all the more complicated by Simon’s secret and his blackmail threat.

And on top of all of that, of course, Simon — and we — have the added interest of trying to figure out who “Blue” is. Some of the film’s most clever scenes depict Simon imagining various characters revealing themselves to be Blue. Berlanti is a master at these sorts of daydream/fantasy sequences, and similar scenes in which Simon imagines himself finally at college (“Liberal University,” the imaginary school’s flags say, mixed in with rainbow flags, in a nice touch), and in which he wonders what it would be like if straight kids had to come out to their families are sharp and offbeat moments that signal the film as more than just another typical teen angst movie.

Of course, without a winning cast, much of what Berlanti is trying here could fall flat, or feel inauthentic. But just as she scored by securing top-notch screenwriters, Albertalli no doubt thanks her lucky stars for the cast the filmmakers assembled here to bring her characters to life. Robinson, who is on screen almost the entire film, is utterly believable as a struggling young man who desperately wants to share his secret with the friends and family he loves, but is also scared about how they’ll react. His performance is raw and sensitive, and always utterly convincing. As his supportive and loving — but often clueless — parents, Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are equally effective, and each gets a one-on-one moment with Robinson that no doubt will have you reaching for the tissue. Garner is especially moving, as we see a mother with vast reserves of love and empathy for her son deliver some kind words of acceptance that might only be bested by Elio’s father in Call Me By Your Name in terms of ultimate cinematic parental acceptance.

Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play Emily and Jack, Simon’s loving and supportive parents.

And bringing a bit of comedic energy to the proceedings is Veep’s Tony Hale, whose often tone deaf and boundary-pushing vice principal Mr. Worth gets all the best lines (“Stop with the selfies; you’re not all that,” he tells students in the halls in his quest to banish the ubiquitous cell phones). Simon’s network of friends, too, fare just as well as the stars from the Hughes era, only, finally, here they more accurately reflect today’s high school student bodies. Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., (Brigsby Bear), Keiynan Lonsdale, Joey Pollari, Katherine Langford, and Clarke Moore join Robinson, Shipp, and Miller in bringing unique, complex teenagers to life beyond simple stereotypes.

Does Simon get his happy ending? No spoilers, but let’s just say that Berlanti, Berger, and Aptaker aren’t above treating us to the sort of Big Moment we’ve come to expect — and, of course, want — in teen films (Molly Ringwald’s Samantha finally sharing a birthday cake with her crush Jake, anyone?) There’s no prom here, but a town carnival, you’ll find, can be an equally effective setting for wrapping up a long overdue and especially sweet coming of age tale.

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Love, Simon opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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