Back in 2000, Greg Berlanti directed The Broken Hearts Club, one of the seminal gay films of the new millennium and a film that’s gained new appreciation lately due to the recent death of one of its stars, John Mahoney. Berlanti has spent most of the last few years as a TV showrunner, and creator of several different superhero shows on The CW, but he returns to film—and LGBT subjects—with Love, Simon, an uneven but ultimately winning coming-out story.
Based on a young adult novel by Becky Albertalli, there’s a similar vibe to the outstanding film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, most notably in that it finds a new way into the story of a gay teenager, and in its depiction of a really lovely group of friends. Love, Simon is the story of the teenager Simon (Nick Robinson), who lives a relatively happy and comfortable life with parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) who love him and a solid group of friends. But he’s keeping the secret that he’s gay.
Simon doesn’t have much reason to worry that everyone won’t ultimately accept him in his life, but he still can’t bring himself to come out. So he gets into an anonymous email correspondence with a classmate, the identity of who is meant as an audience guessing game.
The beating heart of this movie, though, is the group of friends it depicts, led by Robinson (the kid from Jurassic World) as the conflicted, closeted teenager. His equal is Katherine Langford—star of last year’s Netflix series 13 Reasons Why—as another type that I’ve known a lot of in real life but not seen so much on screen. Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lundeberg, Jr. and Kiernan Lonsdale round out the group, and like Lady Bird, we get a glimpse of them in a subpar high school theater production (of Cabaret.)
Garner and Duhamel are both outstanding as the parents, and each of them gets an affecting one-on-one scene with Robinson. There are a few aspects of Love, Simon that don’t work, but none of them bothered me much. The antagonist, Martin (Logan Miller) is all over the map. He’s introduced as a familiar type, the awkward, inept-with-girls nerd whose frustration manifests itself in vicious hostility, but the script keeps hinting at making him charming. His fate also makes little sense, since he does multiple things that in real life would probably get him kicked out of school, if not arrested.
Also, wouldn’t a public suburban high school in 2018 probably have more than one or two out gay kids? And this is yet another film in which the teenaged hero has the undeniable musical tastes of a 45-year-old man, probably because the director of the movie is himself a 45-year-old man. John Lennon has now been dead for almost 40 years—do high school kids today really dress as him and Yoko for Halloween? And much as I normally enjoy Tony Hale, his turn as a bumbling school principal is a failure.
I can already anticipate what the top objection is going to be to this film: Why tell the story of a white, upper-middle class, handsome kid, with loving parents and friends, who in all likelihood will turn out fine in life? To that I say, the film finds a way to make that story compelling. And, there’s certainly room in the world for both Love, Simon and Moonlight.