"I'm supposed to be the one that decides when and how and who knows and how I get to say it—that's supposed to be my thing!"
That's 17-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), exploding at a classmate in Greg Berlanti's coming-of-age dramedy Love, Simon. That classmate, Martin Addison (Logan Miller), has leaked Simon's emails, revealing the closeted teen's sexuality to the whole school. By doing so, Martin has stolen something precious from the title character: the chance to come out on his own terms. On the one hand, it's easy not to worry overmuch about Simon's ordeal. First, he lives in a comfortable house in Atlanta, basically a progressive bastion set in otherwise conservative Georgia. Plus, the people in his life are a gay kid's dream: His family and friends are indefatigably loyal, and as liberal as they come.
Yet I'd argue that Berlanti's movie, based on Becky Albertalli's 2015 novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, is uniquely resonant, and that's largely because it gets how the unease of the closet works. It's keenly emotional. And while lots of people today feel empowered to speak for themselves (and are often embraced for doing so), Love, Simon illustrates how, especially for queer people, there's still power in authorship—in telling your own story in your own words.
At the movie's start, Simon informs viewers that his life is pretty average. He mostly likes his family, and he and his friends do things like guzzle too much iced coffee and jam to a Bleachers-infused playlist on their way to school. See, average. Except, of course, Simon has a "huge-ass secret": He's gay. For much of the first half of the movie, Simon acknowledges his sexuality only to an email pen-pal known as "Blue," who's gay too. Via this online relationship, Simon and Blue are temporarily sealed away from a broader social conflict, while they also begin to wrestle with their place in it. "I've been thinking about why I haven't come out yet," Simon writes. Later on, he reflects that "no matter what, announcing who you are to the world is pretty terrifying—because what if the world doesn't like you?"
What's so significant about the email correspondence is that both Simon and Blue can narrate their stories of growing up in the exact ways they want. More specifically, they can speak about themselves in the first person: "I think you're crazy brave," "I came out to my friend tonight," "I never would have done that without you." I, I, I. More than merely plunking out their musings one rebellious keystroke at a time, the two teenagers are also mapping out their own lives—and at the rhythm that works best for them. "Right now, these emails, they feel like a totally safe place," Blue confides to Simon early in their relationship. Given that it's a uniquely queer act, coming out is really the only thing either boy believes that he has any control over.
But what happens if the authority of that authorship is reversed? That question provides the central tension in the final act of Love, Simon, after Martin, feeling that Simon has reneged on a blackmail-driven promise to set him up with their classmate Abby Suso (Alexandra Shipp), decides to out Simon. It'd be unfair to pre-empt all the pleasures of Love, Simon by indulging in spoilers, so I'll just say that, as Simon loses control over his world, the movie offers some of its most poignant moments, like a moving chat between Simon and Ethan (Clark Moore), an openly gay black student, after they both become the targets of anti-gay bullying. There's also the scene when Simon's mother, Emily (Jennifer Garner), tells her son during a misty-eyed monologue: "You get to exhale now, Simon. You get to be more you than you've been in—in a very long time." (Queue the open sobbing among the audience, at least in the theater where I saw the movie.)
In all these ways, Love, Simon contends not only with the importance of being the chronicler of your own life, but also with the attendant perils. Forced from the liberating online space that the digital age has opened up for many queer people, Simon must do the sort of script-flipping that will enable him, once again, to govern his own story.
Love, Simon doesn't wrestle directly with some of the darker currents of homophobia that buffet queer teenagers today. But that doesn't defang the movie, or make it—the first of its kind to be backed by a major studio—any less revolutionary as a piece of cinema. Indeed, the movie itself is an analogous kind of narrative reclamation, dramatizing the sort of diaristic, sentimental angst that straight teenagers have always enjoyed in movies. (Think of almost anything from John Hughes' body of work.) Further, innumerable queer viewers have latched onto Love, Simon, and been inspired by the movie to revisit their own stories of queerness—or even to come out for the first time. As a tale of adolescence, the movie gamely argues that telling your own story, besides being a means for forging meaningful relationships, is also an act of assuming control—especially for those whom society has long kicked to its edges.