The new romantic comedy “Love, Simon” is all about symmetry. This is a well-ordered world where everyone exists in a state that is not perfect, but rarely uncertain. It is a world that even when threatened with the worst of ruptures is able to knit itself back together with ease. This is significant, because, in case you did not know, is the first teen-oriented film by a major studio featuring a gay lead character. If that seems like a very specific description, I will accede. Because there have been better LGBT movies, and there have been better LGBT movies about teens but “Love, Simon” and its place as a generic film filling the conventional teen romance for gay audiences from a major American movie studio cannot be overvalued. Nor can it be ignored. The heteronormative policies of major entertainment organisations is not incidental. And as I watched the film, thinking of it in relation to its source text (the much more cleverly titled and generally more lithe “Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda”), the release and success of “Love, Simon” only emphasised the chasm between LGBT issues in the Caribbean and LGBT issues in the US. The film’s release here comes as Guyana’s neighbour Trinidad had only just hours before struck down its historical archaic and homophobic anti-buggery laws, which was just about the most accidentally symmetrical thing. Guyana, of course, still has not.
And so, in talking about “Love, Simon,” it’s impossible not to talk about things beyond the film. And to think of “Love, Simon” in relation to Guyana, it seems essential to think of what it represents. Nick Robinson, who plays the titular Simon, was the romantic lead in another teen movie I reviewed here–the unfortunately bland “Everything, Everything.” “Love, Simon” is immediately better than that–not for its gay themes, or not only. Still, as I recalled the half packed theatre for “Everything, Everything,” another in a long line of trite (heterosexual) teen romances, I wondered if the paltry audience in the theatre for “Love, Simon” (eight in total) was indicative of the late time I had chosen to watch the film, audiences being depleted because of the continuing success of “Black Panther” and the new horror flick “A Quiet Place,” or whether the teens and adults who were requisitely thrilled by “Everything, Everything” were unwilling to buy a ticket to a movie that expressly announced its gayness.
It’s almost funny. Almost. There was a minor hullabaloo on Film Twitter in early March when the film premiered and TIME magazine declared “Love, Simon Is a Groundbreaking Gay Movie. But Do Today’s Teens Actually Need It?” Like cultural criticism tends to do, it was limited to the country of its origin, so TIME’s question was launched at an American audience, and even there the banal vapidity of the question was evident. For even America’s improved conditions for the LGBT community cannot neuter the real issues for gay persons, especially teens who continue to die from suicide, often because of bullying. Nor can those (relatively) improved conditions neuter a US government that seems ambivalent at best and hostile at worst (in the case of US Vice President Pence) to the gay community. Were TIME’s question to be launched further south of the US – in Honduras or Gautemala in Central America or Jamaica, or Trinidad and in Guyana it would be downright idiotic. The better question would be whether those who need “Love, Simon” (both those who would see it for support, and those who would see it to glean a different perspective) would actually see it.
“Love, Simon” usually for better, but occasionally for worst, is indebted to the conventions it’s borne out of. It’s clear to see where director Greg Berlanti and writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger leaned into traditional aspects of young-adult romances to make their point. And so, the film’s big climax depends on a declaration of romance in front of the school that’s completely ridiculous but clearly aspirational in the way it is written. The film delays and delays (and delays) any real confrontation of sex and sexuality but with a clear focus, so that when the first on-screen moment of homosexual embrace comes, it’s set to resounding applause of hundreds in the film. It’s a deft touch, fanciful and utopian but understandable. It’s this utopian sheen that perhaps dulls things the film could make sharper. It’s great for presenting a racially diverse world, less so on presenting body diversity – a common issue in Hollywood’s views of utopias. The film’s approach to gayness in that way, then, is more diffident than aggressive but even that makes sense.
One of the eight persons in the theatre was one of my former high-school students who I had taught four years. “What did you think of it,” I asked her when it ended. “I almost cried at some parts,” she gushed. And I chuckled inwardly even if I was less laudatory. It emphasised the aspirational quality of the film. “Love, Simon” perhaps does not present some accurate or even realistic portrayal of gay life, but like any young adult teen endeavour it flirts with reality while presenting something a few miles removed from real life. Something grander, something more symmetrical, more aspirational and freer. It puts you in a strange situation when you try to marry its aspirational qualities lifted from films which are historically heterosexual with issues which are not. Berlanti’s argument that a gay romance is just like a straight romance is perhaps facile. Like trying to mix capitalism and feminism. The two ideologies seem incongruous. The original novel understood that, with its prickly title setting up the binary opposites the film only flirts with. The film offers something softer and I realise, though, it is fine for what it is. I just wonder if those in Guyana – the teens and the adults – who need to take solace in why its version of utopia is so important will bother to go out and see it.
“Love, Simon” is currently playing at Caribbean Cinemas and Princess Movie Theatres Guyana