Instead of a rallying cry for tolerance and compassion, Love, Simon becomes just another entry off the teen comedy assembly line — with the slightest of twists.
This crowd-pleaser is the latest addition to the coming-out subgenre, except that by adhering to coming-of-age formula and relying on plot contrivances, it downplays the internal struggles of its closeted protagonist, and thus reduces the emotional impact.
Simon (Nick Robinson) is an average, well-adjusted high school kid with cool parents (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner) and loyal friends. He generally steers clear of social drama and other trouble.
Nobody knows Simon is gay except for an anonymous classmate-turned-email pen pal who shares his trepidation over when and how to come out. Then Simon’s hand is forced by a scheme involving a hopelessly awkward loudmouth (Logan Miller) who blackmails Simon into setting him up with a female confidant (Alexandra Shipp).
So while Simon tries to squash the spiraling rumors about his homosexuality, he also becomes obsessed with learning the identity of his online admirer.
As directed by Greg Berlanti (Life As We Know It), the film shows a heartfelt sincerity toward its characters and their various angst-ridden crises, in particular conveying the awkwardness of coming out to friends and family. That’s hardly new territory, but is treated here with perceptive sensitivity and occasional poignancy.
The screenplay, based on a novel by Becky Albertalli, captures the vibe of a suburban high school in the social-media age. It provides some scattered big laughs mostly from its quirky periphery characters — anything involving the sarcastic school drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell), for starters — while imparting the expected lessons about acceptance and being true to yourself.
Robinson (The Kings of Summer) offers a committed performance that never feels self-conscious. And his chemistry with Simon’s circle of friends displays a convincing camaraderie despite the film’s emphasis on narrative melodrama.
The silliness of the gimmicks that inadvertently reveal Simon’s sexuality to his classmates, and prompt his search for his soulmate, seem designed primarily to soften the material for mainstream consumption. But that’s missing the point.
It’s as if Love, Simon is trying to prove that generic teen romances can star gay characters in addition to straight ones. That might pass for modest progression, but it’s hardly a dramatic breakthrough.