“For the most part, my life is totally normal,” explains high schooler Simon Spier in the introduction to “Love, Simon,” adding, “I’m just like you, except I have one huge ass secret: Nobody knows I’m gay.” As far as opening voiceovers go, this one is fairly innocuous, a chipper introduction to a by-the-numbers coming-of-age story about a gay teenager. The entire movie, with its suburban carpools, barrage of pop culture references, and well-meaning parents, is just like that — fairly innocuous. Simon is a squeaky-clean, all-American lad with the perfect parents and the perfect bangs; he’s calculated to be the least offensive version of a gay person to those who might be offended.
Perhaps it would be naively optimistic to hope for more from the first major studio movie about a gay teenager coming out, a significant milestone. Director Greg Berlanti and 20th Century Fox deserve kudos for giving gay kids a blockbuster romance of their own — complete with a first-kiss-atop-the-Ferris-wheel-finish. “Love, Simon” may reach across the aisle to the “totally normal” kids with a huge secret, but it reaches right over everyone else.
Teen heartthrob du jour Nick Robinson plays Simon, the totally normal kid in question. He has a family he adores and a loyal group of friends whom he drives around in his sweet Subaru Outback (ride of choice for lesbians everywhere). When his school’s gossip blog publishes an anonymous email from a closeted kid at school, Simon creates a fake email account to write to the boy, known only as “Blue.” When Blue finally responds after making poor Simon wait all day, the two commence a chaste correspondence. They write earnestly about when they knew they were gay, how they think their parents will respond, and their favorite bands and TV shows. Pretty soon, Simon is guessing who his mystery man might be, swapping out contenders in his daydreams.
When he forgets to log out of his email on a school computer, the aggressively dweeby Martin (Logan Miller) discovers his secret. Even though Martin’s brother is gay, he still copies Simon’s emails and blackmails him into setting him up with Abby (Alexandra Shipp), one of Simon’s friends. Rather than risk being outed or scaring Blue away, Simon goes along with Martin’s plan, inviting him to hang out with his crew and pushing Abby to give Martin a chance. His subterfuge even goes so far as to push two other friends into a relationship neither of them wants, which comes back to bite him later.
Humiliated after a particularly brutal public shaming when his seduction goes awry, Martin sends Simon’s emails to the gossip blog. Pretty soon, the entire school knows Simon’s secret. To make matters worse, Blue goes radio silent. Those dark moments set the stage for a finale that’s somehow less than the sum of its parts. It’s the kind of neither here nor there outcome that keeps “Love, Simon” firmly middle of the road.
Simon gets his happy ending, but it’s unclear just who will be able to relate. Most LGBTQ youth will see more of themselves in Ethan (Clark Moore) than in Simon, the school’s resident flamboyant. Observing Ethan being bullied, Simon says: “I wish he wouldn’t make it so hard on himself.” The movie is full of these kinds of rigid gender stereotypes that shame kids who don’t happen to be “totally normal with a huge ass secret.” In one sprightly fantasy dance sequence, Simon imagines his future life as an out gay man. When the fantasy ends, he says: “Okay, maybe not that gay.” When Martin cleverly dresses as a Freudian slip for Halloween, Simon tells him “Maybe you shouldn’t have worn a dress. You look like a drag queen.” Clearly, Simon could use a gender studies class. The whole movie is like one giant “Masc-for-Masc” Grindr ad.
But it hits all the notes of a satisfying teen drama, even when the jokes fall flat. That’s okay, because it paves the way for Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) to steal the show as the embittered drama teacher with a secret wild side. During rehearsals for a production of “Cabaret,” she tells an unfortunate set builder: “It needs to look like a real German sex club. Don’t ask me how I know.” Tony Hale fares far worse as a vice principal who tries too hard to be hip. When Simon cringes at the vice’s cell phone jokes, he’s not acting.
“Love, Simon” deserves celebration as a groundbreaking achievement from a major studio. Berlanti’s gay Midas touch has ushered in countless LGBT characters to television, and his film venture is no less significant. The cast is notably diverse. It’s too bad that the movie isn’t as vibrant, funny, and entertaining as the community it wishes to represent — but it’s a start.
“Love, Simon” opens in theaters nationwide on March 15.