Friday 20 April 2018

Just one of the guys: "Love, Simon"

Love, Simon arrives at an interesting time: a time when the John Hughes movies to which filmmakers have spent several decades paying fulsome and enthusiastic homage have started to be reassessed by a whole new generation, not to mention their now fully grown stars. (Verdict: not good enough.) Greg Berlanti's film bounds up to us as the kind of sweet-natured project Hughes might have arrived at if he'd grown up with an only just slightly different set of parameters, life experiences and desires. It unfolds around the usual sunny suburban streets, among a set of high-schoolers whose bedroom walls and in-car playlists are top-to-tail with hip musical referents (now Elliot Smith, Radiohead and Animal Collective, where once all was Psychedelic Furs), but it allows for one very significant variation, insinuated to us by protagonist Simon (Nick Robinson, from Jurassic World) in his opening, very Hughesian voiceover, but which he finds hard to articulate to his nearest and dearest: he's gay.

Well, so what?, you might declare: after all, TV's Glee worked through many hours of coming-out dramas, and even the recent, raucous Blockers accepted the teen sex comedy need not be an exclusively straight domain. Yet Berlanti's film is the first studio-backed teen movie to centre a gay protagonist, and his struggles with a heteronormative world pursuing its own agenda. Perhaps to reassure passing bluestockings, the script falls back on one of those epistolary narratives that have underpinned hetero fiction ever since the Bard. Simon engages with an anonymous poster on his school's social network who claims to be undergoing similar confusions, and faces two problems. One, his dreamier side starts lingering over his correspondent's every linguistic tell and attempting to match it with those around him; two, a kid called Martin (Logan Miller) - representative of the lamest aspects of straight teendom, right down to his Trump voicemail message - has found out Si's secret, and decided to hold it over him so as to get closer to his female best friend.

What Berlanti and writers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have succeeded in is explaining the tricky business of coming out to those alpha males who stalk the boardrooms of Tinseltown: on some fundamental level, Love, Simon is the story of a boy struggling to maintain control of his own narrative after a leaked email threatens to expose who he really is. There is nothing here that might truly be considered threatening or an affront to comfortably heterosexual viewers: Berlanti works very hard to give these events the comforting look, feel and sound of a common-or-garden teen comedy, even having Simon declare "I'm not that gay" on the outro of his big, all-singing, all-dancing musical number. Gay he is, nevertheless, and that incontrovertible homosexuality does give the film a whole new route into and through certain scenes: anything set at one of those ridiculously well-appointed parties where beer is served in red plastic cups and the presence of at least one non-hetero male might complicate the usual hormonal pairing-off, the birds-and-bees talk where dad doesn't quite realise who he's talking to and what he might have to explain.

These encounters are very nicely played, as is the remainder of the film - Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell are good value in the funny teacher roles - but every now and again Love, Simon can feel sensitive to a fault. Glee's Kurt and Blaine pairing faced a measure of criticism - amid the considerable praise - for presenting a poster-boy ideal of gayness, rather than anything that might be liveable by flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings; the permanently pining Simon makes those dudes seem like down-and-dirty hustlers. (The one ride he gets comes at the very end, and it's on a Ferris wheel.) I kept thinking back to Emma Stone's Olive in 2010's Easy A, the last great American teen movie, a more proactive creation whose sexuality sat closer to the surface, and who was allowed to make mistakes and mess up. That may be a definition of straight privilege, but even our hero's folks set me to thinking of the earlier film: Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are well cast as a model of heterosexuality any boy would find it tricky to live up to - and Garner has her best scenes since 2007's Juno - but I still think we'd rather shack up with Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson.

For all that, only the most closed-minded, peanut-hearted grinch could look at the film's very existence, and its warm reception by critics and audiences, and not see it as another small step in the right direction. If I were thirteen again (perish the thought), and having feelings similar to those Simon is having, I think I'd be relieved indeed to have a film like this on my DVD shelves as a point of reference or a source of comfort, and even my ploddingly straight 13-year-old self might have learned a thing or two about being a more attentive and supportive pal to my gay or undecided friends. (To those folks, I can only say: sorry if I let you down at any point through my cluelessness.) Even if as a film, Love, Simon leans more often than not towards the drippy than it does towards the daring, those drips still find a way of adding up to something or simply eroding any scepticism. There is something unimpeachably lovely about the way Berlanti and Albertalli, via Berger and Aptaker, offer a hand to those who've traditionally found themselves on the sidelines of this genre, and our schools - if not to dance, then at least to reassure them that they're really not alone.

Love, Simon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

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