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Love, Simon is an email lost in translation
By Jonas Schwartz
Love, Simon, a quaint, but unremarkable comedy by television producer Greg Berlanti, wants to be something remarkable, but misses the mark of dazzling the audience. Despite a winning lead performance by Nick Robinson, Berlanti's direction, and Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker's screenplay feels built by a committee, stealing tropes from better teen films and never really surprising the audience. Robinson is desperately trying to jump over into the complexities and naturalism of Call Me By Your Name, while the creators have caged him in an episode of Dawson's Creek.
In a suburban utopia, young Simon's teen angst has come to a head when an anonymous schoolmate admits he's gay. Tired himself of hiding in the closet, Simon takes a leap and begins corresponding with his phantom new friend. Feeling empowered every day, Simon slowly removes the shackles of hiding, and decides to seek out the charmer on the other end of the computer. Complications toss Simon out of the closet quicker than he anticipated, and his own stupid decisions isolate him from his closest friends. His own disastrous reveal to the school scares off Simon's love interest from exposure leaving Simon completely alone and heartbroken.
If one looks at the teen movies of the past that really resonate, their unconventionality and sizzling dialogue raise them above the standard fare: the nihilistic humor of Heathers, the aching relatability of John Hughes' characters of the '80, the utter confidence of the modern Hester Prynne in Easy A. The films took risks with eccentric casting (who would have thought in 1986 to cast Harry Dean Stanton as a lovelorn father to the heroine), dialogue that could have been transcribed from a school lunchroom, and plots that disclosed how rocky teen life can be. Love, Simon is affable, with an identifiable youth, but so many script choices were banal. The desperate, unhip but caring school administrators who overshare (Allison Janney in 10 Things I Hat About You and Chris Parnell on TV's Grown-ish), the school carnival on school grounds that looks like Six Flags (Grease), the best friend who secretly loves the hero (Dawson's Creek), the loving, but clueless parents (Heathers), and the deadline for true love to arrive while the entire cast waits around and roots for our protagonist (Never Been Kissed), all feel like snippets stolen from a night of Netflix and chill.
The biggest problem with the film is Simon's sensibility feels anachronistic. He seems to live in this '80s world where teens have little exposure to gay life. Coming out is no doubt still traumatic to this day, and bullying has not subsided, it may even have gotten worse in this conservative age, but gay teens see gay characters on TV all the time on hit shows like Will & Grace and Rupaul’s Drag Race and in movies. Simon feels like a fish out of water from the days when gay life was foreboded in the mainstream world.
The cast are all excellent but deserve more nuance. Robinson, whose charisma could fuel a jet, carries the entire film on his shoulders. Katherine Langford, who was heart-shredding in the Netflix Hit 13 Reasons Why, is given no material as the forlorn best friend. As the folks, Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel belong on a sitcom.
Love, Simon could have been groundbreaking. Unlike last year's award darling Call Me By Your Name, Love, Simon is a gay movie produced by a major studio, 20th Century Fox. Greg Berlanti's smoothing of the edges may get a swarm more people to the seats, but will audiences be talking about the film in a year, or 20, as with Clueless, one of the zeniths of teen films?
Postscript: One day after writing the first draft of this review, I caught Riverdale, the hit Berlanti CW show. The B-story was all about the characters going to see Love, Simon and how the film affected their lives. The cold synergy only made the movie seem more manufactured.
Check out Jonas's reviews at www.theatermania.com/author/jonas-schwartz_169