Friday, March 24, 2023

“Love, Simon” Explores Mainstream Queer Narratives

I’m not normally one for seeing films by myself, but I’m also the one to be the biggest hypercritical buzzkill of any film viewing experience, which is probably why I end up seeing films I really want to see on my own. But walking by the Love, Simon posters at the AMC Theatre in Virginia Beach day after day only served to make the need to see this film in theatre more palpable than ever. When I was a young queer boy coming out in high school my first, and only, queer film I had to reference was The Laramie Project…obviously not the most light hearted and inspiring film to see as a budding homosexual. This was one of the first queer themed films I’d heard of in years that was actually being funded, advertised, and pushed out with big advertising and filmmaking bucks by ‘Big Hollywood’ so of course I had to see it. I went and got my standard kid’s popcorn and junior mints and was headed in ready to sit in a lonely theatre with two other people and side-eye all levels of problematic white gay shit while I sipped my root beer. Fortunately, I was to be slightly disappointed.

I walked into a crowded theatre, some 50 or 60 people (enough that I had to get creative since my favorite seat was taken) and settled in. I saw people I recognized from the club, from the mall, from Grindr, it was exciting to see everyday people I saw from all walks of life getting ready to go on the journey.

Love, Simon starts with a visual monologue by our protagonist, Simon Spiers, who shares with us his normal everyday life and family; except for his ominous ‘big ass’ secret. We see an average young man, with a group of average friends, interacting in an average school; it’s all average, there you’re caught up. After about 6 minutes of establishing things are ‘average’ we hear about a post on a social media blog the school is linked to. Someone posted a picture of a ferris wheel with the note that their life has been running in this cycle of ups and downs, mostly linked to their being in the closet; the letter is signed ‘Blue’ and impulsively, Simon jumps into action; creating a fake email account and the pen name ‘Jacques’ and confessing his same secret. The two begin a pen pal like relationship, which is cute and endearing until a classmate and thespian, Martin, discovers Simon’s secret.

Martin confronts Simon privately, and blackmails him into setting him up with one of Simon’s best friends, Abby. Even in this moment, Simon still can’t bring himself to say the word ‘gay’ it’s a visible struggle for him, as if all the things that just happened wouldn’t matter since he still hadn’t said it out loud. Reluctantly, Simon agrees and begins telling lie after lie to pull his best friends Nick and Abby apart so that he can protect his secret. While this going on, Simon attempts to constantly put a face to Blue. At one point suspecting Bram the handsome soccer player, until he discovers him making out with a girl at a halloween party. Or Lyle, the handsome Waffle House waiter till he asks him if Abby is seeing anyone; can people chill with Abby though? Like damn, she is a powerful ass Wonder Woman, Lemonade loving feminist who needs no man…hop off y’all.

Things eventually come to a head at the homecoming football game, after just finding out Simon’s second ‘fantasy blue’ played for the other team; Martin asks about making a grand gesture to impress Abby. Simon, heated, tells him to go for it; and not a few moments later Matin hijacks the National Anthem to tell Abby he loves her; which is met with rejection. This begins a vicious social media bullying frenzy, and right before the Christmas break. So in order to get some of the heat off of him, Martin posts the screenshot conversations and outs Simon to the entire school. What follows is probably my favorite moment in the film, when the world is falling down around you through something so surreal and intangible as the internet; there’s no storm, no mobs of people, nothing, and it’s that lack of activity that causes such frustration and anger. There is almost a NEED for something to be there for you to lash out, and unfortunately only Simon’s younger sister is nearby to catch the brunt of it. The silent but steady breakdown of anger and frustration is a very raw and beautiful performance by Nick Robinson.

This leads to Simon having to come out to his parents, he takes a break from the rest of the world for the holidays until school starts back. At this point Abby and Nick have talked and become an item; but then discovered all the lies Simon told to keep them in part. This was an interesting moment because it didn’t let Simon off the hook…usually in queer films an narratives we forgive the protagonist queer character all of their faults because it was all in the name of their sexual journey. This doesn’t do that, and I appreciated it. Leah, played by Katherine Langford, also gives a beautiful performance when she confesses that she has been in love with Simon all this time; a tension we the audience was obvious to while Simon was oblivious. This carries Simon into his first day at school after being outed, and is probably my second favorite moment in the film.

When Simon walks in the vice principal, played by a goofy and sometimes oversharing Tony Hale, stands at the entrance to the school as he always does. But this time silent, and with a rainbow flag pin on his lapel. I almost wish the moment didn’t have to get broken with humor, because just seeing that figure of support in an adult teacher at the school was such a powerful thing. Although, I get that it wouldn’t mean much for a 13 year old at the time so I get it. Later, two meathead jocks get on a table in the cafeteria and make sexually obscene gestures pairing Simon with the only other openly gay teen at the school, a queer boy of color named Ethan. Before Simon can start a potential fight, the FIERCE theatre teacher Ms. Albright; played by Natasha Rothwell, schools the two ignorant students in front of the entire school.

Following all of this, we see Ethan and Simon finally interact in a very beautiful moment. Ethan asks why Simon didn’t come out to him, or come to him for help, and shares the difficult story of his family and how hard it has been to be out. I wish this moment had been expounded upon a little more; it did an excellent job, whether intended or not, to put the perspective of Simon’s privilege in front of him. If there was thing I was missing from the entire film, it was a moment to hear Ethan’s story and really have a driving moment where Simon realized his problems were only a small drop in the bucket compared to others. But I’m not hear to write the story, I’m here to tell you about it.

After this, we come to my third favorite moment, Simon and Martin’s confrontation after everything that had happened. Martin attempts to explain away his decision to our Simon as diverting attention from him. This obviously doesn’t go over well with Simon, who lashes out in a verbal smackdown on the importance of owning the ability to ‘come out’ and that to have that stolen was a messed up and unforgivable act. Again, Robinson delivers a stunning performance and that really drove home the words of how it feels to be added; in an elegant manner. Following this, Simon comes to reconcile and have a much needed talk with his parents. He shares a beautiful moment with his mother, played by Jennifer Garner, which begins with the age old gay son to mother question ‘Did you know?’ Unlike the traditional response, his mother replies “I knew you had a secret…when you were young you were always so carefree, but the last couple years it feels like you’ve been holding your breath.” This beautiful exchange, leading to Garner saying “Exhale, Simon, and you are you and now you can be even more you than you ever have been before.” The following reconciliations with his father and best friend Leah are much more light hearted, and get us back on track with the humor of the film.

By the end, Simon finally reclaims his coming out by writing a long post on the school blog site; before askin Blue to meet him at the ferris wheel at 10PM after their school performance of Cabaret. The school rallies behind them, and Bram reveals himself as the true Blue and the two share a romantic kiss and happy senior year together.

Overall, the film was beautiful, it shared a wonderful and honest story that did an impressive job of conveying the difficulty and terror of being outed while providing and uplifting and inspiring message. As a film, it is a sweet story, and a powerful impactful step in using big Hollywood money to put queer stories in mainstream movie theatres and media; BUT it is only a small droplet in the vast ocean of queer narratives and stories that are needed…and this film is far from immune to the same criticism many films before it have had. First and foremost, and perhaps the biggest problem…WHERE. ARE. MY. TRANS. BROTHERS. AND. SISTERS. AT!!! There’s not a single featured or secondary transgender character in this film, and that is a HUGE oversight for such a highly publicised and queer centered film. If we are to normalize and empower Trans stories in the mainstream media; even queer stories as white as this one need to elevate those characters and stories to the front WHENEVER possible.

The film did an excellent job of a very diverse cast, a gay interracial couple, and prominently featured characters of color as well. Developed and empowered female characters that, while still steeped in the problems of high school teen romance, definitely had a little more layers to them then your traditional high school teen stories. This, while a slight compliment, does lead me to a criticism/call to action of the film. This film is steeped in some white ass privilege, there’s no talking around this elephant. Simon is a white boy. A gay white both. A white gay cis boy. A white gay cis boy in a well off corner of suburbia. To say the boy needs his privilege checked is an understatement. If we are going to continue to see films about queer people, they need to begin including featured QPOCs, Trans people, and most importantly…stories where the privilege isn’t real, where the stakes are higher, and where sometimes the family and friends are not always all there for you.

One of the most powerful elements of a theatre is their ability to make a room full of strangers instantly feel like they are among friends. When a queer story about a person of color, or a trans person, or a person who is not accepted by their family, shows on film and makes the audience clap or cheer; the people in that room going through that struggle feel validated. As a white queer man who went through a lot of things Simon went through, I felt validated when the audience erupted in applause to Ms. Albrights defense of Simon and Ethan. That is a powerful feeling, and I have gotten to feel it enough, it’s time for other members of our community to have that feeling for a change. We need to celebrate the successes of this film, while also making sure we teach these filmmakers how to better advocate for and tell ALL of our stories as they continue the success.

In conclusion, and I know it sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth a little after that harsh ‘Radical Queer Criticism’ but go see this film. It is a beautiful story, with excellent production value, and is honestly putting our stories out there on the big screen. But while you do, don’t for one minute let these filmmakers get away thinking they got everything right; QPOC and Trans stories have been taking a back seat since the Stonewall riots and we need to show these ‘Big Hollywood Money’ figures that they need to start putting that money behind Queer, Black, and Trans stories. Help educate them, help them use their privilege to be our advocates, and make our stories heard. They care, they had to in order to make such a well thought out piece of film that depicts a more honest and real coming out experience than I’ve ever seen before. Help them be a better advocate for us, help them keep the money and support so we can count on a place in Hollywood to invest in our stories, and for the sake of just a plain nice ass date out with your friends…go see this movie.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got share my thoughts with a certain film director and producer 🙂

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