Monday, March 19, 2018

LOVE, SIMON is about knowing who you are while needing to find the strength to be seen that way

John Hughes does not have a monopoly on the teen movie genre.

I want to state that upfront because every time a new teen movie really seems to hit the mark, reviews go out of their way to pay homage to John Hughes. There's certainly no question that the man's body of work broke a lot of ground in the teen movie genre. Nor would I deny that his work was an inspiration to many filmmakers who treated teen protagonists as fleshed-out, complicated human beings.

But it's been 25 years, and it's time to acknowledge that teen movies should be free of John Hughes's shadow.

This was one of the thoughts that came to me during LOVE, SIMON, a high-school dramedy about a 17 year-old boy (Nick Robinson) with a secret. You see, Simon is gay. This isn't a movie about Simon realizing he's gay, or figuring out his sexuality, which is a not-uncommon story (for supporting players) in teen films. (Or smaller indie films, if the lead is the one discovering their sexuality.) Simon knows who he is, he just doesn't know what to do about it.

There's a bullshit line that a lot of reviewers use when discussing the experience of walking out of a film as a privileged person who has felt empathy for some kind of "other": "It's not a gay/black/Muslim/etc. story, it's a universal story." It's a line that means well, but when wrongly deployed can seem to be erasing the uniqueness of the black/gay/etc. experience. LOVE, SIMON is a gay story. There's no logic to erasing that. But it's a gay story with so much to say about identity and perception that it allows for identification beyond sexual orientation.

LOVE, SIMON is about finding the strength to be seen as the person you are and realizing that what everyone else thinks about it means both nothing and everything. Unable to come out to those closest to him, Simon begins an email correspondence with an anonymous closeted student at his school. He's at last able to be open about his feelings and his insecurities, in an interesting demonstration about how anonymity and the mask provides helps people be true to themselves.

A virtue of the script, by THIS IS US showrunners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, based on the novel Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda is that it doesn't paint Simon's life as one where he'd obviously need to be closeted. To start with, he's raised by two loving, liberal parents who taken an active interest in their children's lives. I've lamented many times how Jennifer Garner seemed like she should have had a career as a double-threat action-star, serious dramatic actress and somehow keeps getting stuck in "mom roles," but this is one of her better mom roles. (Spoilers through the rest of the paragraph.) She's the center of a scene that's arguably the emotional catharsis of the entire film when she tells her newly-out so that he deserves love and that being gay shouldn't change that. As Simon's dad, Josh Duhamel has an equally powerful moment when he asks his son how long he's known he was gay, and then weeps at realizing his son felt he had to hide who he was for four years.

Ten years ago I might have called bullshit on such scenes as being too idealized and easy, but you have to remember that Simon was born into a post-Ellen, post Will & Grace world. I buy that parents of Simon's upbringing would react the way they do, just as I buy the school's supportive attitude, and the fact that Simon deals with some moderate homophobia from two bullies.

This isn't a movie that really addresses the politics of being gay. It doesn't try to be all things to all aspects of that kind of life. Gay marriage isn't addressed, hate crimes and institutionalized homophobia aren't mentioned either. Coming now, in a time where Trump has ushered in a vast increase in anti-Semitism, homophobia, and Islamophobia, it's a little surprising that fear for one's life doesn't enter at all into the decision to come out. I don't think addressing this would do anything other than gum up the story, and it's probably best to leave these matters to films addressing those issues head-on.

The one thing that DOES seem odd to me is the fact that Simon's high school has only one out gay student. That feels unusual for a school that by all appearances is very supportive of students who choose to be open about being gay. The school reminded me a lot of my high school, where cliques weren't really that important and everyone was generally accepting of each other. I can't remember anyone being out in my school, but this was two decades ago.

Simon's friends are another strong support system. He's known Nick (Jorge Lendenborg Jr.) and Leah (Katherine Langford) since kindergarten and really has no reason to think that they'd abandon him just for coming out. As he says later, though, he was scared of this truth changing too much about a part of his life that meant a lot to him. There are a lot of complications with his friends that I don't want to get into too much detail on, except to say there's a point where another student finds out Simon's secret and blackmails him in a way that leads Simon to manipulate his friends.

When the truth comes out, our sympathies are with Simon, who was just trying to keep from being forcibly outed. We almost want to give him a mulligan on everything he did in service of that, but the script doesn't forget that his actions had emotional consequences for his friends. As understanding as they are of his secret, what he did hurt too, and he's not easily let off the hook. There's not a great deal of space for the film to deal with this, but I like that it's even addressed at all.

Like director Greg Berlanti's TV series EVERWOOD, this is a story that remembers everyone in it has a justifiable motivation behind even their most self-involved actions. It was a show that truly understood their characters inside and out, and rarely would fall into situations that were purely black and white. A "good," well-intentioned action could cause justifiably-felt hurt in another person. It was never a show that allowed a "greater good" to deliver a mulligan for bad mistakes. When I look at LOVE, SIMON, I see a film with a lot more EVERWOOD DNA than John Hughes DNA

I recently did a breakdown of EVERWOOD's pilot on Twitter and one thing I liked about it is that it's loaded with conflict, but conflict where everyone is "right." Ephram is at first delighted when the most beautiful and popular girl in his grade, Amy, befriends him. He's hoping for a romantic relationship, only to learn she's concealed that she's got a boyfriend. Understandably, Ephram feels manipulated and angry... until she reveals that her boyfriend has been in a coma for months and that Ephram's father, a world-famous brain surgeon, might be the only one who can save him. So yes, she led Ephram on, but it was in service of saving someone she loved. You can't really fault her desperation, nor do you blame the knots that Ephram ties himself in over this.

It's a fairly chaste story too. Sex itself - both heterosexual and homosexual - is barely mentioned. Aside from a masturbation joke and an allusion to one character's sexual experience level, it's a non-factor in the plot. It's another thing that feels right for the story being told, but when you consider how much play this topic would get in another teen movie, it's one thing that sticks out.

I wish the film had a little more space to explore the friendship between Simon and Leah, and only part of this is my 13 REASONS WHY fandom for Katherine Langford talking. Langford makes the most of the scenes she's given, cluing us into the fact that Leah's in love with Simon while also not tipping that hand so far that it's implausible that Simon misses it. You feel bad for her when it comes out that Simon could never give her what she wants, though the fact Simon's parents have no hesitation about letting her sleep over in his bedroom should have been a pretty good clue she was solidly in the Friend Zone. Langford and Robinson have solid friend chemistry, but another scene or two really showing their connection might have made Simon's determination to not mess it up and Leah's impending heartbreak even more powerful.

(I also have to note that Leah confesses at one point that she always feels like an outsider, like she doesn't belong at parties and that there's an invisible line between her and everyone else. It was then that I realized her character is basically a female Clay, Dylan Minette's character from 13 REASONS WHY.)

I'm going back to spoiler territory to discuss two late scenes. In one, a character hijacks the singing of the national anthem at a school football game to declare his love for a female classmate. It's a grossly uncomfortable moment even before she has to tell him she doesn't feel that way about him. In a John Hughes movie, this would be a grand gesture that wins the girl, but with the reciprocal attraction removed, it becomes a creepy attempt at emotional manipulation and pressure by making a spectacle of things, and the movie correctly recognizes this.

Which is why it's initially unsettling when a now-outed Simon makes it publicly known that he'll be riding the Ferris wheel at the carnival, waiting for his anonymous email pen pal Blue to show himself. Many of Simon's classmates turn out to see if the mystery man arrives, and for a moment, it feels like Simon has manufactured a kind of public pressure that just minutes earlier we were cringing at. I felt bad that their first moments face-to-face had to happen in front of a crowd.

But there's an important distinction between the two: consent. In the former example, the girl doesn't ask to be a part of this, she's targeted and ambushed. Simon gives his mystery lover the option to show up. He's made himself vulnerable, and while there's a really good case to be made that Simon might have scared Blue off for good, in a worst-case scenario, Simon is the only one to be publicly humiliated.

Teen stories resonate with a wide audience for a multitude of reasons. The obvious one is that the high school experience is full of universal moments and that almost everyone can relate to something in a story about that period. Beyond that, I submit that the emotional experience of being a teenager isn't especially dissimilar to that of being an adult. Teens just have the freedom to wear their emotions on their sleeve more, and their lack of experience in dealing with those feelings means that the intensity of the experience is greater.

But at the core, many of the same emotional drives are there into adulthood: Wanting to work hard to get into college is replaced with wanting to work hard to get that promotion, or that new job. Being determined to fit in with the group never fully goes away, you just get more experience at doing it. We want to be liked, to be loved, to be accepted. And all of this is set at a time in your life when you're not distracted by bigger problems like mortgages and unemployment. There's nothing to get in the way of acting like these aren't legitimate things to be concerned about. It's why I've never been onboard with those who dismiss teen movies and teen dramas out of hand.

Hopefully everyone who sees this movie will find someone to identify with. If it's not Simon, maybe it's Leah, who deals with two varieties of heartbreak. Or Simon's parents, who wish they could have been supportive sooner, or Martin, who's so determined to fit in that he does some horrible things to make that happen. LOVE, SIMON is a film driven by real emotions at every turn. The older I get, the more I'm convinced that empathy is one of the most important feelings to engage, and this movie has it by the gallon.

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