Love, Simon is a sweet, timely rom/com for the gender-fluid generation

Nick Robinson in Love, Simon (Ben Rothstein | Twentieth Century Fox)

Many Gen-Xers share an abiding affection for the John Hughes movies on which they grew up, especially the ones featuring the young actors who came to be known as the Brat Pack. They remember how old they were, where they were and who was with them the first time they saw, say, The Breakfast Club. But Hughes is gone now, and no director seems to have emerged as yet who groks the coming-of-age passage of Millennials in a comparable way.

As evidenced on the streets of Washington, DC and many other cities and towns where the March for Our Lives recently took place, kids today are rebelling in ways that are both more sophisticated and more radical than the sheltered Reagan-era angst of their ’80s and ’90s counterparts. Or, to use the terminology that Millennials themselves prefer, they’re more “woke.” Even in an upscale suburban high school that’s the setting for Greg Berlanti’s new teen rom/com Love, Simon, they move more easily among a student body where being multiethnic is the norm, and they are not particularly shocked when one of their friends turns out to be gay.

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That capacity for social flexibility doesn’t soften the difficulty of coming out, nor even, for straight, cisgender kids, the time-honored adolescent awkwardness of figuring out how to make one’s romantic interest known to the person upon whom it is focused. And bullying certainly still happens. In that respect, Love, Simon may be the closest thing we’ve seen yet to a contemporary spin on the John Hughes oeuvre. Beyond the fact that none of its teen characters seems troubled by any sort of family financial anxieties, they ring true for these times, and they are an engaging lot overall.

Based on a 2015 YA novel by Becky Albertalli titled Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, it’s the tale of a high school senior (Nick Robinson) who hasn’t yet told any of his tight-knit group of friends or his warm, supportive family that he’s gay. Another student anonymously confesses his own gayness and sense of isolation on the school’s Tumblr blog, and Simon and “Blue” begin corresponding by e-mail. The first act of the film mostly involves Simon’s fantasies about who among his many peers Blue might be.

Things get dicier when the class clown, Marty (Logan Miller), who has a hopeless crush on Simon’s friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp), takes screenshots of some of Simon’s missives to Blue on a school computer and threatens to out him if he refuses to help Marty get into Abby’s good graces. Fearful of alienating Blue, with whom he is inexorably falling in love without knowing who he is, Simon reluctantly, angrily complies. Marty the blackmailer/stalker is the movie’s closest approximation of a villain, but he’s played as more pitiable than detestable; and Simon, a far more sympathetic character, manages to fall pretty low himself, manipulating his closest friends – Abby, Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) – rather cynically to protect his secrets. Nor is his the only undeclared passion in this maelstrom of hormones. It all gets quite knotty, as young love often will.

The great strength of Love, Simon is the overall excellence of its ensemble of young actors. Some of their adult supporters aren’t too shabby, either, including Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel playing Simon’s parents. Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell are both very funny in recurring turns as the school’s vice principal and drama teacher, respectively.

Coming along as it does not long after Call Me by Your Name garnered plenty of critical praise on the arthouse circuit, Love, Simon begs comparison to its more prestigious predecessor. The two movies have a lot in common thematically: Closeted young man with open-minded upper-middle-class parents pines in torment for seemingly unattainable idealized partner. Love, Simon isn’t set in Italy and doesn’t have such stunning cinematography, and I highly doubt that anyone’s going to nominate it for Best Picture of 2018. But truth be told, this reviewer actually liked it better. The characters are more developed, more relatable; and there’s much more of a plot, even if a few of its twists telegraph themselves a tad too obviously.

The many teenagers in the audience at the screening I attended showed their approval vociferously, with many a hoot and cheer and “Awww” and “What?!” The travails and triumphs of Simon and friends spoke to them. Perhaps the Millennial generation has finally found a Brat Pack of its very own.