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Groundbreaking 'Love, Simon' is a Landmark Teen Classic

The first mainstream teen romantic comedy to feature a gay lead character…
 
The new coming of age/coming out flic Love, Simon is being hailed as “groundbreaking.” It’s a rare descriptor for a romantic comedy—as confirmed by a Google search. Love, Simon shares the mantle with Obvious Child (2014), which, against the odds, successfully pairs hilarity, casual sex and abortion.
 
So what makes Love, Simon earn such praise? I’ve been watching coming out movies since before I came out, ranging from depressing (yet beautiful) subtitled French films seen in sticky repertoire cinemas to the UK’s cheeky Beautiful Thing, Canada’s stunning Lilies and, more recently, sassy G.B.F. and heart-wrenching Oscar winner Moonlight. All touched me in different ways; some inspired me to touch myself.
 
Yet Love, Simon stands, not above, but apart from these and other examples of young adult coming out tales, including fellow LGBTQ romantic comedies. Based on the novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Love, Simon is the story of closeted 17-year-old Simon Spier, a teen who believes that “everyone deserves a great love story”—including him.
 
He gets his chance when a schoolmate comes out anonymously online, and they begin a clandestine email correspondence. As Simon becomes more invested in this mystery man, gay takes on traditional romantic comedy ensue: best friend girl crushes that he doesn’t reciprocate, overshares from parents and school officials (including the hilarious vice principal, played by Tony Hale, who laments his Tindr dating fails), and a series of comedic near misses as Simon tries to figure out who is on the other end of the faceless online exchange.
 
Viewers of Will and Grace, Glee, and one of my all-time favourite young adult coming out story arcs on Ugly Betty will have seen small-screen variations on the Love, Simon treatment.
 
But, despite narrative precedent, Love, Simon stands out. It’s the first gay teen movie to be produced by a major film studio (20th Century Fox), and it has a relatively wide release (2,400 theatres in the US) and a sizable budget (US$17 million). It’s directed by the openly gay Greg Berlanti, who has brought TV viewers a range of LGBTQ storylines as a producer of Riverdale, Arrow and Dawson’s Creek.
 
Berlanti’s big screen oeuvre is definitely finding its audience. I saw Love, Simon a few weeks after it came out. The theatre was three-quarters full—not bad for a Wednesday night—with a smattering of gay men and a large contingent of women. As one woman left, she declared, “That was awesome.”
 
Love, Simon is also striking a chord among stars, from openly gay actors like Matt Bomer and Neil Patrick Harris to New Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan and his wife, Jamie Lee Darley. They all loved it so much, they bought out theatres to make the film more available to people who might not otherwise be able to see it.
 
Some might not immediately understand what the fuss is about. In Love, Simon, Berlanti may nudge boundaries, but he doesn’t push them, not the way LGBTQ directors like Gregg Araki have done—see his “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” or Mysterious Skin (fun fact: Araki directed the oh-so-magnificent ‘The Wrestler’ episode in this season of Riverdale).
 
Love, Simon mentions Grindr (Simon’s dad offers to join in solidarity because he thinks it’s the gay version of Facebook), but the movie avoids the messiness (literal and figurative) of where a hookup app can lead; a moment of teen bullying is quickly quashed by the lesbian drama teacher; and, while Simon’s friends turn on him, it’s not because he’s gay—it’s because he was selfishly messing with their dating lives.
 
There is a downside to a movie that’s so safe and sanitary. The title character is not as universally representative as he seems to think (Simon declares himself to be like everyone else, but many people won’t relate to the suburb of mini-mansions he calls home nor his parents handing him the keys to his own car when he’s old enough to drive). But, like Riverdale’s gay character Kevin Keller, Simon is an easy-to-take introduction to gay teen tribulations for mainstream audiences.
 
Weirdly, that is what makes Love, Simon groundbreaking. It’s funny, it’s awkward, and, with a few tweaks, Simon, played by Nick Robinson, could be Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed. In fact, odes to ’90s rom coms abound. I’m reminded of how I felt when I saw raunch com Not Another Gay Movie, thinking, “Finally, a version of American Pie for people like me.”
 
Love, Simon proves itself by pulling at heartstrings in a way that reminded me of what it was like to be in the closet, the ache of crushes and first love, and the awkwardness of coming out—without the triggers of suicidal motifs, fear of bashings, or seeing parents kicking their queer kid out of their home. As much as movies like Araki’s road trip, HIV bender The Living End blew my mind when I first came out, there was something refreshing about Love, Simon’s light touch.
 
The result is a thoroughly entertaining addition to the world of gay films, one that’s reportedly inspiring teens to come out while the movie’s still playing (the more thoughtful moviegoers are waiting until the credits roll). It almost makes me wish I could go back in the closet so I could come out again.
 

 
Steven Bereznai is the award-winning, bestselling author of the young adult dystopian novel I Want Superpowers and the gay teen superhero series Queeroes.
 

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