Much has been made of the John Hughesian quality of the new teen rom-com Love, Simon, but a more telling influence might be the one the title character mentions in his opening monologue. “I’m just like you,” the 17-year-old tells us, before noting that among the “totally normal” things he and his friends do is watching “bad ’90s movies.” His idea of what’s ordinary seems to have been shaped by such films. He cites as proof of his averageness the fact that, for example, his dad is the “handsome quarterback who married the hot valedictorian,” a teen rom-com setup if there ever was one. Meanwhile, there’s one fact that he thinks makes him not totally normal: He’s gay. This too is the natural conclusion any gay teen watching these movies would reach, because fully realized, compassionately drawn gay characters are conspicuously absent from that canon. What follows is a charming and unexpectedly poignant commentary on the challenges of navigating adolescence without such representation—a testament to the very need the film seeks to meet.
The Simon of the source material, Becky Albertalli’s 2015 novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, plays Assassin’s Creed with his friends rather than bingeing on Drew Barrymore flicks, but he’s clearly aware of the role gay characters tend to play in the rom-com canon. “In reality,” he says, “I’m not the leading guy. Maybe I’m the best friend.” That’s until he strikes up a correspondence with another closeted student, who had revealed his sexuality anonymously online, posting under the pen name “Blue.” Blue’s confession resonates, making Simon feel seen and understood in a way he’s clearly been starved for—so much so that he sets up a pseudonym of his own and writes back. As he says in the book, “For the next few days at school after that [first message from Blue], it felt like I was a character in a movie. I could almost imagine a close-up of my face, projected wide-screen.” It’s a part he hadn’t considered possible for himself until now.
Simon isn’t the only one whose sense of self seems informed by what he’s seen on screen. In the film, Martin, the boy who blackmails him with screenshots of those messages in order to get close to his friend Abby, clearly does think of himself as the leading guy. In one scene, he leaps onto the table at the local diner and refuses to stand down until Abby agrees to shout, “I deserve a goddamn superhero!” Encouraged by this encounter, Martin later asks her out by running onto the football field before the school’s big homecoming game, seizing the mic mid–national anthem and declaring his love in front of a sea of students. Evidently, he thinks he’s the Heath Ledger of his story, and he anticipates the same level of success. The inevitable rejection, though gentle, is amplified by the number of jeering witnesses and quickly goes viral. In the book, by contrast, the rejection happens entirely off screen, in a simple, ill-fated conversation, unbeknownst to any of Martin’s classmates until he informs Simon directly.
The insertion of these ’90s rom-com–inspired moments drives home the extent to which the characters have modeled their lives on pop culture, which leaves Simon himself backed into a corner. He too views his own identity through the lens of the media he’s consumed, but he lacks the wealth of cinematic role models available to his straight counterparts. Until Abby encourages him to talk about his taste in boys (something he admits he “doesn’t really know how” to do) and his best friend Leah insists that he “tell [her] about this guy you love,” Simon has been silently grappling with the sense that his feelings are somehow inappropriate and inarticulable. His straight friends talk about sex and romance, but he lacks a template for how that conversation can or should go. Inundated by shows and films in which his sexuality is either unacknowledged (gay best friends tend mostly to be sassy-but-sexless accessories to the female lead) or seen as off-limits entirely, he’s internalized that message, making himself as small and straight-passing as possible as a result.
Simon’s early assertions that he’s “just like you” and his clumsy attempts to meet certain expectations of adolescence are symptoms of a world without meaningful representation for gay teens. He doesn’t see how he can be open about his identity and not be relegated to a role he doesn’t want to play, so he commits to another one, to the point of hiding behind a couples’ costume with Leah at the same Halloween party where he frantically professes to “just love all women!” He wants to continue indulging in the fantasy of the archetypal teen experience that the ’90s movies he and his friends watch so religiously have led him to expect. And for a time, it works: He gains access to the epic house party that is a staple of the genre, dominates at beer pong, and gets to be center stage with the boy he’s crushing on. In the moment, though, that feels predicated on the crush in question not knowing his feelings.
It takes time for Simon to understand that he can both have that archetypal teen experience and be open about his sexuality. Once he comes to the realization that “I deserve a great love story,” he apparently decides that love story is Never Been Kissed. The parallels are blatant, down to a fateful scene where the protagonist’s love interest finds them sitting alone on the Ferris wheel and asks if he can sit down. After Martin leaks his emails for the whole school to see, Simon is suddenly robbed of the chance to come out on his own terms. Instead, he’s faced with wounded friends, homophobic classmates, and an ineffectual vice principal who’s ill-equipped to deal with the bullying he now faces. But like Barrymore’s character (who likewise has her true identity as an undercover reporter exposed, to the shock of her would-be high school classmates), he writes his way from rock bottom to a meaningful romance, winning over those who didn’t know what to make of his revelation. Blue, for his part, like Barrymore’s beau, shows up right at the last moment, to the crowd’s cheers. These similarities are clear choices on the part of the director and the screenwriters—in the book, Blue and Simon meet on the Tilt-a-Whirl, with no one else watching or grasping the emotional stakes. And at one point the filmmakers planned to go a step further. The musical the students put on was going to be an adaptation of Say Anything … , Cameron Crowe’s classic high school rom-com, before Berlanti decided the idea was “too meta” even for Love, Simon.
The film’s great service to gay teens comes less from these showy homages to the teen-movie genre than from its quieter moments. In these, it provides a script for navigating a world in which even well-meaning parents and kids can respond to an essential aspect of your identity in ways that are awkward or cruel. In Love, Simon, gay teens have been gifted with a story that shows them they can fill a role that’s more than sexless or supporting. It’s exactly what Simon needed—and what many of the teens watching will need too.