Sunday, March 25, 2018

Greg Berlanti | Love, Simon


by Douglas Messerli

Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (screenplay, based on the novel by Becky Albertalli), Greg Berlanti (director) Love, Simon / 2018

Watching the new teen comedy, Love, Simon, yesterday I realized it is not truly a gay story; in fact, 
we see little of young Simon Spiers’ (Nick Robinson) sexual desires, and even he admits that he is just like everyone else around him. His friends, a long-time (13 years) woman acquaintance, Leah (Katherine Langford), a black woman who has more recently moved to his Atlanta suburb, Abby (Alexandra Shipp), and a black-Hispanic male, Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) might represent the most correct coalition of high school relationships possible. Simon is not just “normal,” but almost a model for what young folks should be in this world of anti-racist and forgiving sexuality. Both of his parents, particularly his psycho-therapist mother, Emily (Jennifer Garner), along with his father, Jack (Josh Duhamel) are liberal, and even their son admits that if he told that that he was gay, they would probably be quite accepting. Clearly, this studio movie argues, times have changed from The Boys in the Bad, the play and movie which defined my own generation.
      No, the problem here is not in being gay but in admitting (or we might simply “expressing”) it, in “coming out.” The problem is that in speaking the truth Simon will be perceived as someone else, as a kind of stereotype rather than just an ordinary kid. If his desires are not particularly expressed—he 
simply feels that he, too, deserves a good love story—the film expresses a great deal of angst about sharing his desires with others. Indeed, a whole sequence plays with the idea of what it might mean if “straight” kids had to express their desires to their parents just as do gay ones. It’s a great comic moment; but, of course, we recognize that normality, even in this fantasy world, will never be perceived as being homosexual; heterosexuals are simply privileged in our society.
      My husband Howard has expressed that his greatest fear of being gay was that he would become one of the mincing fairies represented in Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, and, by and large, that is just what Simon fears, that in telling everyone he is gay he will become someone else than he is actually. Throughout the film, he keeps insisting that he is the same person that he has always been, perhaps suggesting that he has been a kind of perfect person. I don’t think all young people register that.
      I have never had those fears, but I certainly did fear speaking to my parents about my sexuality; and when I did, as I’ve noted several times in My Year volumes, they arose from the dinner table and left Howard and me in Washington, D.C., as they quickly made their way back to Iowa. It was a devastating act that, even if they later came to accept me, from which I never quite recovered. Now, in their minds, I was not the same son who had grown up in their house. So, I certainly do know where Simon is coming from. Being gay was not the issue, sharing the fact, particularly with parents and friends, was another problem.
      Fortunately, and quite by accident, Simon discovers, on-line, someone very much in the same position, a young gay man in his own school, who writes under the name “Blue” confessing that he feels that he is on a kind of Ferris Wheel, with terrible highs and lows, and that in his inability to express his sexuality, he is losing himself. Simon almost immediately bonds with him and writes back (how I wish we’d had computers in my day), signing his shared messages, just a few of which we overhear, with the name of Jacques. Together these two internet correspondents try to negotiate the problem they have had to face: how to remain the beloved kids they are while simultaneously having to keep such deep secrets.
     As the film casually explores, all young teenagers are in similar positions, being afraid to lay their emotions on the line, fearing to express love for one another because of the possibility of rejection or to tell of their own private fears because they might suddenly be mocked by their multiple interlinking “groups.”
     Perhaps, like Ethan (Clark Moore)—an apparently transgender student, who announces early on that she is also “gay”—being an outsider, as I was, may be actually be an advantage. Being an “insider,” as Simon, creates problems that doesn’t easily allow an admission of “outsiderness.”
      Much of this lovely film is simply a detective story, as Simon attempts to uncover the young man with whom is has now fallen in love. At first, he suspects Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale), but when he discovers him about to engage in sex with a female classmate, crosses him off the list.
     Later, he suspects a handsome local waiter, Kyle (Joey Pollari), but when that lad asks him about dating one of his female friends, the illusion is also destroyed. Who could “Blue” be, and how might he find him, a particularly difficult task now that “Blue” has come out to his father and has retreated to a WiFi free camping retreat to re-bond with his dad? What is the now fixated Simon to do?
      At last, he suspects a young gay-looking boy, who, when he finally confronts him, also leads to a wrong alley.
     In comes the film’s only real villain, the clumsy, comical, and self-serving Martin Addison (Logan Miller), the true outsider of this school community, who has a crush on Simon’s friend Abby and who, after discovering Simon’s communication with “Blue” on a school internet connection, blackmails Simon into helping him get a date. In doing so, Simon betrays all of his friends, trying to rearrange their social involvements at the very moment when such young people are already simply “scared” to express them. In short, to protect his own neck, Simon makes their own “coming out” commitments impossible. When, after a completely failed and utterly comic attempt to woo Abby, Martin finally releases Simon’s on-line messages, the young hero is now utterly shunned. Unintentionally is has accomplished just what he most feared: he is now “someone else,” a person excluded by the very people he was fearful might abandon him.
     Since this film is a teen comedy, of course, things do work out. Simon, finally, is re-embraced by his family—despite, in one of the most painful scenes in the entire move, his younger sister, Nora, arguing that he should simply deny the gay accusations—and, ultimately, by his best friends, particularly after an ugly incident when both he and Ethan are mocked in the school lunchroom.
     After a high school musical production of Cabaret, Simon signs on again, this time pleading with the mysterious “Blue,” to show up on the Ferris Wheel after the production to take that wild ride of ups and downs with him. At first it does not seem that his plea will work, and even the always clumsy, John Belushi-like clown, Martin arrives to argue that he is actually “Blue,” the idea of which Simon, and we, reject. Fortunately, Bram arrives at the very last moment to take a seat next to Simon and ride up to the skies before returning to earth again. I can’t tell you why, but I knew Bram was “Blue” all along. Maybe, as an actor, he was just too convincing in the role.
     In the end, Greg Berlanti’s teen comedy does not truly plow deep territory, but its concerns about speaking out does, and I now believe it screams volumes about young people speaking out, particularly after what we have just witnessed when the Marjory Stoneman High School students from Parkland and millions of other teenagers have seemingly come to life and intelligently spoken up and out about something that has long been troubling them and the entire country—far more tragic than their sexuality! If my legs were stronger, I would have loved to have marched along with them on the very same day I was watching this movie. But my mind is still functioning, and my gift, I hope, is that I can still write.

Los Angeles, March 25, 2018

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