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Can even the haters love "Love, Simon"?

Jul. 3, 2018
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This could be a review that critiqued the overly picketed streets of Love, Simon. I could tear down the “It’s A Small World” opening, where we blaze through a colorful and cheery tour of his “totally perfect, normal life.” There are friends whose overly adult conversations come with a healthy dose of adolescent charm. Mom and Dad love each other too much, and a rosy-cheeked sibling rounds it all out with an early onset, quirky hobby (kid chef!). Simon’s car is shabby but signature. A caffeine habit and mixtapes ripped directly from a trendy Urban Outfitters employee bind a social group’s morning commute. The vice principal is the generally creepy window dressing on the shiny veneer of the local high school. My favorite of this familiar grab bag was the witty and harried drama teacher narrating the failures of suburban theatre productions. God, did I want to hate it all. I wanted to throw my hands up in disgust and switch over to absentmindedly scrolling through Twitter. But there was a disingenuous and sinister atmosphere to the honey-soaked world of Creekwood that held me captive for much of the early scenes. Knowing that the hinge of this movie’s narrative was Simon’s closeted identity allowed me to read these opening scenes differently than what I assume the average moviegoer left with. The inertia of Simon’s everyday life wasn’t quirky or even charming. It betrayed an acutely specific anxiety any queer teen feels in a place like suburban Creekwood. Everyday life in a place where nothing changes and communities are scarce can coat you in a warm apathy that disillusions you entirely. 

Truthfully, I didn’t buy Simon’s protestations of living a perfect life, because he continually reminds himself and the audience that it comes with “one huge ass secret.” For all the connectedness his external life boasted of, his interior self was an island in a vast and lonely sea. I went into this film thinking it would try and convince me that a world existed in which coming out landed not with a bang, or slammed doors, or families torn apart. A world where small town queer teens could be hot, rich, and adored by everyone around them. Where parents were maddeningly well-adjusted, and the biggest worry a gay kid could have was what costume he’d wear on Halloween. But anyone who stuck out the first 20 minutes would find that Simon’s world was nothing more than a cleverly designed set piece that sparkled with the right lighting. The jumbo-sized houses he and all his friends lived in hid secrets, pettiness, even crippling anxieties. Simon’s affable and picture-perfect family was run by a man who frequently made homophobic and sexist jokes at the expense of just about anyone. Simon, the lovable everyman adored by the lunch table, frequently lied to anyone who dared peek past his charming exterior. It’s a recurring theme throughout much of Love, Simon—the closer he and all his friends get to self-actualization, the more the cracks in their everyday lives showed. 

It’s been a few days since Love, Simon first populated my brain with intense loathing and a hint of secret affection. I’m still not sure why. The longer I’ve sat with it, the more I’ve felt that Simon’s world was shiny in the way polyurethane on a new table is—slick, expensive-looking, but entirely cheap and waxy to the touch. The story, a rather cookie-cutter retelling of Definitely, Maybe with gay teenagers, wasn’t particularly riveting. The characters, a grab bag of CW-adjacent actors and actresses presided over by an undeserved performance from Jennifer Garner (Simon’s mother), felt destined for CBS procedurals and Sundance darlings (at best). Nick Robinson (Simon) is handsome in the way Middle America feels about Chris Pratt, and the cast of potential gay pen pals orbiting him all felt like slight variations of Twitter-famous Buzzfeed employees. The film repeatedly does every disservice to the background players in Simon’s rather self-obsessed coming out charade more than most contemporary high school flicks. 

The abundant teenage narcissism was perhaps the most honest thing about Love, Simon—considering it’s a film that asks us to forget that Atlanta, Georgia statistically holds the record for Mecca of contemporary gay civilization by sheer number of bottoms per capita. Its fascination with the romance of young love felt hollow. The friendships felt forced. The social hierarchies refused to obey any real world analogue. And above all, it played directly into a troubling tendency of high school flicks. Only those who sat near the center of social hierarchies can look back on teenage-dom not traumatized by the inflated emotions, meaningless connections, friendships of convenience, and the crippling anxieties of youth in the age of social media. I’ve lived much of my 20s by the principal that anyone who makes their high school experience a fixture of their adult personality is clearly a psychopath. Simon, the titular white everyman who passes as straight in the world of acceptability, benefits from his particularly large stock of this social currency. 

Love, Simon, like most romantic comedies, rests much of its narrative journey on the conceit of wish fulfillment. And I’d be a hypocrite to outright criticize its obedience to that staid romantic trope! I remember every line Diane Keaton has ever decreed from behind a cashmere turtleneck. I know an embarrassing amount of anecdotes about Nora Ephron’s filmography. There isn’t even a Julia Roberts movie I’ve missed since Mystic Pizza! So for what is ostensibly the first ever “gay” romantic comedy to be produced by a major studio, why did I find myself torn between confusing affection and visceral loathing? I think it boils down to my belief that now, more than ever, nothing exists in a vacuum for very long. I never felt a political obligation to the romantic comedies I’ve consumed, because I understood them for what they were: cheap fluff meant to fill the time it took to carry popcorn from the tub to my mouth. And that was okay! In a world that didn’t feel like it was tearing apart at the seems, we could all accept romantic comedies as merely barometers for the popular sentiments around love and relationships.

But the world is tearing apart at the seams. And this is ostensibly the first ever “gay romantic comedy” to be produced by a major studio. That has to mean something! In a post-marriage equality world, I can’t help but feel that popular gay media has spent the last five years idly sitting on its hands while the rest of our culture progresses without it. LGBTQ+ teens are some of the most critically informed people I know, especially on the internet! And the media they share between themselves, be it YouTube videos or memes or Instagram posts, reflects much of their changing attitudes towards popular culture. Love, Simon at face value takes place in a world that doesn’t exist yet. It believes that after what is often the violence of coming out, the world will still gather to cheer you on for your first kiss. And I want to celebrate that! We need stories that envision a better future. But Love, Simon roots itself in the past without ever considering the future (or even present). Take the continual reinforcement of language about queerness, for example. Simon frequently reminds himself (and us) that he will never be “like those gays.” It also plays into outdated social hierarchies contingent on proximity to wealth, whiteness, and acceptability. Simon gets to end this film at the literal top of the world because, as his mother reminds him, he’s still Simon! Again! He’s still rich, white, and conventionally attractive with a lack of outwardly “gay” descriptors that flag him as the other.

All of us living through adulthood as queer people look back and wish our teenage years had played out differently. To varying degrees, maybe. But let’s not kid ourselves about the 2000s. Bush did a number on this country, and many of us lived through that. While I hope that somewhere out there a small-town teen found comfort in the streets of Creekwood, I couldn’t help but see the long shadow the Trump administration casts across this film (and my critical perception). We’ve always lived in a world where art carried the burden of its consequences, sure. But when the lives of non-white, working class, immigrant, disabled, and LGBTQ+ people everywhere are being threatened, even our wish fulfillment deserves accountability. And while Love, Simon shot for the moon with a charming story of gay pen pals and suburban hijinks, I couldn’t look past the glaring falsehoods and social hierarchies to which it clung. Maybe someday there will be a world where the Simons don’t have to come out. Maybe even a world where sexuality isn’t a conversation reserved for online discourse and real world shouting matches. But sadly, that world is not now. In this world, we deserve better from our fantasies.