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Dustin Putman

Love, Simon  (2018)
3½ Stars
Directed by Greg Berlanti.
Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Logan Moore, Talitha Bateman, Clark Moore, Tony Hale, Natasha Rothwell, Miles Heizer, Drew Starkey, Kelynan Lonsdale, Joey Pollari, Terayle Hill, Bryson Pitts, Nye Reynolds, Skye Mowbray.
2018 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual references and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, March 1, 2018.
How is it that "Love, Simon" is likely the very first mainstream, wide-release studio release featuring a teenage lead character who happens to be gay? This shattered glass ceiling is a long time coming and, fortunately, the breakthrough film in question is more than worthy of carrying this proud torch. Sensitive and touching, gratifying and resoundingly honest, this big-screen adaptation of Becky Albertalli's acclaimed 2015 novel "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" gets just about every emotion right in its story of a 17-year-old boy navigating the tricky terrain of coming of age while coming into his sexuality. The care and affection director Greg Berlanti (2010's "Life as We Know It," TV's "Riverdale") and scribes Elizabeth Berger & Isaac Aptaker (TV's "This Is Us") bring to this material is unmistakable in every frame, and they are uplifted all the more with an excellent cast led by Nick Robinson (2015's "Jurassic World") as the eponymous protagonist.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) feels as if he's living a double life. He has known he is gay for several years (his first preteen crush: Daniel Radcliffe), but he has continued to keep this part of who he is a secret from everyone—parents Emily (Jennifer Garner) and Jack (Josh Duhamel); younger sister Nora (Talitha Bateman); best friends Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.)—in fear that it might change his relationships to them. It's Simon's senior year, and as graduation lurks on the horizon he finds a soulful online connection with a fellow gay student who posts an anonymous message on their school's social-media site. Although neither party has revealed his identity, Simon cannot help but sense he is falling in love for the first time. When the personal emails he has written to his mystery pen-pal fall into the hands of nerdy classmate Martin (Logan Miller), Martin begins a blackmailing scheme, threatening to go public with Simon's private messages—and, by extension, outing him—if he doesn't agree to help him get closer to Abby.

The quandary Simon is faced with is twofold, and neither has anything to do with him being ashamed of who he is. Were the world different, he wouldn't hesitate to be out and proud, but he is anxious about how his truth will be perceived by those he loves most. Just as troubling is the jeopardy placed upon his new sort-of romance, a confidential online bond which was meant to remain just between the two of them and now could potentially be revealed to the entire school and beyond. Perhaps the biggest betrayal is what Martin is threatening to take from him: the chance to come out at the right time, on his own terms. The beauty of "Love, Simon" is in its astute, slice-of-life observances about family, friendship, and that delicate moment in every LGBTQ person's life when he or she must gather the courage to begin living as their authentic self. Director Greg Berlanti avoids the trappings of turning this subject matter into a self-serious message movie or 2018's answer to an "ABC Afterschool Special." It's both bittersweet and wholly sweet, acerbically funny and catch-in-your-throat poignant.

Nick Robinson is hugely sympathetic as Simon, gradually coming into his own while realizing there is very little at all he needs to change about the person he's always been (a college-set fantasy sequence where he imagines his life as a song-and-dance musical scored to Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" is delightfully buoyant, but he must begrudgingly admit this is not who he is, either). His experiences in trying to find his place in a world where it seems like so few others in his bubble are like him ring achingly true. Jennifer Garner (2014's "Men, Women & Children") and Josh Duhamel (2013's "Safe Haven") are superb as parents Emily and Jack, the former a bleeding-heart liberal who nevertheless doesn't appear to be aware of her son's secret and the latter an easily emotional man's man who isn't above an off-handed derogatory comment toward the gay people he sees on television. At times, watching these freshly written, blessedly layered characters was like gazing through a looking glass at my own teenage past, pre- and post-coming-out, and late scenes Garner and Duhamel share with Robinson are some of the most unforgettably affecting in the picture.

In an ensemble where just about every actor gets their moment to shine, plenty of standouts emerge: the wonderful Talitha Bateman (2017's "Annabelle: Creation") as Simon's aspiring-chef sister Nora, a sibling with whom Simon is proud to say he gets along; Katherine Langford (Netflix's "13 Reasons Why") as Simon's longtime BFF Leah, who may be harboring unspoken feelings of her own; Alexandra Shipp (2016's "X-Men: Apocalypse"), radiant and down-to-earth as Abby, a recent transfer student whom Simon has instantly become close to; Logan Miller (2017's "A Dog's Purpose") as the oft-infuriating but far-from-one-note Martin; Clark Moore, exhibiting a gift for sharp-tongued comic delivery as the strong-willed Ethan, the only publicly out gay kid at his school; and the terrific Natasha Rothwell (HBO's "Insecure") as tell-it-like-it-is drama teacher Ms. Albright, earning many of the film's biggest laughs while suffering through the indignities of directing a destined-to-be-disastrous high-school production of "Cabaret."

There have been plenty of gay coming-of-age stories in cinema prior to "Love, Simon"—most recently, Luca Guadagnino's extraordinarily moving "Call Me by Your Name" made a respective mark, ultimately earning four Oscar nominations in the process—but before now they have been independently produced, mostly snuck in and out of a handful of theaters, and were easy to overlook unless one was searching for them. This one feels different because it is so prominent. 20th Century Fox deserves copious accolades for taking the next progressive step in greenlighting and releasing on 2,000-plus screens a mass-market, swoon-worthy romantic comedy about a young man who happens to be attracted to the same gender. For straight audiences, "Love, Simon" entertains while naturally speaking to the importance of tolerance, in the process hopefully expanding the minds of those who will no longer be so quick to stereotype or discriminate others simply for their sexual identity. For LGBTQ viewers, the film will be a heaven-sent joy, every bit as special as Marvel's "Black Panther" recently was to persons of color who for far too long have not seen themselves represented to such a celebratory degree within Hollywood blockbusters. Simon Spiers is not a superhero, though. He's a regular person like you or me, someone who makes mistakes but is innately good, a teenager who deserves love and success and happiness just like everyone else. There's no more powerful point than that.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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