A Change In Tune For The High-School Rom-Com, But A Strong Lead Lacks Support.
There’s a moment when Chris Evans’ Jack Tyler is challenged to take Janey Briggs (Chyler Leigh) to prom in the satirical teen comedy Not Another Teenage Movie and he exclaims “No, not Janey Briggs. She’s got glasses. And a ponytail. Ugh, she’s got paint on her overalls. What is that?” His response is so purposefully pointed, so overblown and faux-flippant that you know the plot of the movie will end with him taking her to the prom.
Now, once you stop reeling from the fact that I’ve just quoted such a seminal piece of 21st century cinema, I’ll ask for you to indulge my reasoning. There is a convention in high school rom-coms, from Clueless to She’s All That, to accommodate the predictable: the outcast that becomes the love interest, the support-act that fulfils the comic relief, the strained conflict that somehow ends up so easily resolved. These tried and tested formulae have blueprinted a conveyor belt of teenage dramas that range from the ingeniously innovative (Mean Girls, anyone?) to the downright tawdry (has anyone watched John Tucker Must Die in the last ten years)? By its very premise, Love, Simon offers a fresh take on covered territory, but in many ways still falls victim to obvious set-ups and familiar tropes.
Simon (Nick Robinson) is the quintessential suburban prodigy. A good-looking, easy-going kid with a sharp mind and a quick smile, he has a secret. He’s gay. When a closeted kid from school called “Blue” anonymously confesses to also being gay on the school messaging board, Simon strikes up an e-mail exchange with him. Through their back and forth, they fall in love and both find the strength to come out. It’s a high school love story that finds its freshness in its very premise, which is rare in such a saturated genre. Based off Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film is bolstered by an absorbing performance from its lead and a layered unravelling of Simon’s search for the strength to publicly accept who he is. The dizzying innocence of Simon’s e-mail exchange with “Blue,” the desperation when he tries to suppress the truth after another student blackmails him and, perhaps in the most sincere moment in the movie, Simon’s real sense of loss when his personal decision to come out is taken away from him provide flashes of new ground in well-trodden terrain.
Simon himself has all the twist and turns that brandish the film as a ground-breaking story in this space, but the characters with which he shares screen time are too carefully choreographed to his story to allow for the narrative to ever feel anything but pampered. Whether it’s the customary exposition that attempts to distinguish the struggles of his friends or the forced comedic relief of the teachers at school, Simon’s story seems to suffer from a world that is too catered to telling it. With the exception of finding “Blue,” every event unfolds like notes on a sheet of music, formulaically put together to lull and crescendo at all the right moments.
The world around him is far too assured. Unoriginal supporting characters and, at times, rudimentary dialogue get in the way of a real sense of claustrophobia in Simon’s inability to express himself.
Perhaps the intention was to replicate the familiar world of this genre so that the freshness of the premise would play out to subvert it. There are certainly some clever nods and casting choices that work towards that goal. The simple and fanciful sequence of Simon’s heterosexual friends “coming out” to their parents as straight, and even Simon’s casting as a good-looking, athletic kid goes against the grain of the characters that so often seem to be the centre of ridicule in these movies. Nevertheless, despite the obstacles that are thrown Simon’s way, they never seem to break the veneer or make him truly vulnerable.
Love, Simon is an important film because of the freshness of its premise. It achieves what it sets out to do, but never truly challenges its lead. Every obstacle is expected and adequately deposed so that when Simon finally meets the mysterious “Blue” to the rapturous applause of his friends the ending shines like glitter – only because it has been custom-built to do so from the very beginning.