Aiming at the multiplex, this teen romcom is the first to boast a gay protagonist
Dir. Greg Berlanti. US. 2017. 110 mins
It may be about as edgy and cool as the latest J Crew collection but the third feature from Greg Berlanti (best known as the powerhouse TV producer of The Flash, Green Lantern and Political Animals, amongst others) represents something of a landmark in LGBTQ cinema. A teen romcom in which the protagonist has to negotiate the minefield of high school hierarchies, sidestep bullies and ultimately find romance, the film differs from numerous other pictures of the same ilk only in the fact that the central character is a closeted gay boy. It’s undemanding but immensely likeable. And the quietly revolutionary message for its young audience is that the gay romantic narrative in cinema is not always synonymous with tragedy and heartbreak.
The plotting is not just neat; it is precision tooled to hit its emotional beats
The film, which opened in the US mid-March and premiered in the UK at Glasgow, followed by London’s Flare Film Festival, will surely be a rousing crowd-pleaser at pink events, but this is a slick piece of entertainment which is designed, first and foremost, for the mass market. The multiplex is its natural home. And the novelty of its big-hearted, unflustered approach to sexuality, plus the considerable appeal of lead actor Nick Robinson, should ensure positive word of mouth from young audience members who have hitherto struggled to find themselves represented on screen. The film’s cautiously chaste approach to sex and its mainstream positioning may limit its connection with older audiences, however.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is blessed with an enviable support system. His tight-knit group of friends are sweet and funny; his family (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play his parents) is warm and wise. Even so – and even though he suspects that they all would support him – he can’t quite pluck up the courage to come out as gay. Then an anonymous post on the school blog catches his eye: a student posting under the pseudonym ‘Blue’ shares the same situation. Simon emails him, and the two become confidants, neither knowing the identity of the other. And as Simon begins to fall in love with ‘Blue’, he speculates about which of his fellow students could be his secret penpal. It’s a device which bears a passing similarity to the central conceit of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner or the later remake You’ve Got Mail.
Even a film as peppy and upbeat as this must have some jeopardy, and this comes in the schlubby, slogan T-shirted form of Martin (Logan Miller). Martin has fallen hard for Abby (Alexandra Shipp), one of Simon’s close friends. And, when he happens upon Simon’s emails, Martin uses them to blackmail Simon into setting him up with Abby. To do this, Simon is forced to betray and manipulate two of his other buddies, causing a schism in his social support system just when he needs it most.
Fortunately, mum and dad are on hand to deliver heart-swelling, moist-eyed speeches which reaffirm their love for their boy and general awesomeness as parents. Crucially though, the heart is balanced out by humour, with scene-stealing turns from Natasha Rothwell and Tony Hale, as, respectively, a scaldingly forthright drama teacher and a puppyish, over-sharing deputy head teacher. The plotting is not just neat; it is precision tooled to hit its emotional beats. And the look of the film is as crisp and clean as the film’s structure - there is no hint of darkness in these light-filled frames. And although a reassuring hug of a happy ending is never in doubt, it is no less satisfying for this.
Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures
Worldwide distribution: Twentieth Century Fox
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner, Pouya Shahbazian
Screenplay: Elizabeth Berger, Isaac Aptaker; adapted from the novel ’Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli
Production design: Aaron Osborne
Editing: Harry Jierjian
Cinematography: John Guleserian
Music: Rob Simonsen
Cast: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Colton Haynes, Talitha Bateman