Love, Simon: a game-changer for gay representation in teen cinema

11 Apr 2018 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

6 mins
Love, Simon
Love, Simon

Adapted from a popular novel by Becky Albertalli, Love, Simon is a warm, funny, sweet and achingly romantic coming-of-age story set to take its place in the teen movie canon, alongside the likes of The Breakfast ClubFerris Bueller's Day OffCluelessMean GirlsSing Street and Lady Bird. What makes this film slightly different however is that its central character, Simon Spier, is gay.

Simon's aware of his sexuality, but is struggling to come out to his family and close circle of friends. Things begin to change when somebody in his school posts an anonymous message online, under the pseudonym of ‘Blue', saying the same thing. Simon reaches out to him and the two develop a strong bond that looks like it could blossom into romance, although neither knows the true identity of the other person. Through support and communication, they are both able to help and encourage one another to be more open about who they are, although the process becomes more complicated for Simon when he is threatened with being "outed" before he is ready by another student who discovers his emails.

Simon is growing up in a liberal, progressive environment, and the audience is never under the impression that revealing he is gay will be anything other than a massively positive decision for him to take. Apart from ‘Blue', there are other out and proud LGBT students in his school, able to shut down any homophobic bullies, who are shown to be utterly ridiculous (although not without their own emotional difficulties). That does not make his coming out easy, however. Many of the most touching moments of Simon's experience are small, but perceptively handled: struggling to even anonymously write the words "I'm gay" in an email to somebody who already knows his secret; finding it difficult to talk about men he finds attractive; or wrestling internally with whether an individual he has a crush on is gay or straight. Finding the burden of keeping his secret stifling, the rest of Simon's life is comfortable and fairly care-free. Simon has convinced himself that coming out would somehow change all of that, or make those who love him the most to see him differently. Understandable as his anxiety is, this is shown to be nonsense.

The film, directed by Greg Berlanti, also understands that figuring out who you are, and feeling like an outsider, is likely to always be an issue for young people, whether or not they are LGBT. The film intelligently builds its supporting characters, many of whom are strong, diverse role models, with their own affecting story arcs. All of this helps to ensure that many teenagers will see themselves in Love, Simon, whilst the exploration of both the opportunities and perils of social media are also universal to the contemporary teenage experience.

But the film's true importance remains the fact that for many young people struggling with their sexuality, it may be the first time they have seen somebody like them represented on screen, and placed front and centre of an empowering, positive story. Teen films have always been fantastic showcases for dealing with the challenges of adolescence, Love, Simon builds on this and finally provides young LGBT people with a hero and role-model of their own.

Although Love, Simon is the first mainstream studio teen movie to feature a gay protagonist, lots of great independent films also deal with young people coming out, or explore first love amongst same sex couples. This reaches back to the iconic Rebel Without A Cause - despite that film being made at a time when the sexuality of the central characters could not be directly acknowledged - and has most recently found prominence in the already iconic Call Me By Your Name. Beautiful Thing is a moving story of two gay boys growing up on a London housing estate. The witty and campy G.B.F. also features a high-school boy being outed on social media and brings with it a message about learning to be yourself rather than letting others construct an identity for you. Handsome Devil is the story of two teenagers fighting against a macho, laddish culture in their Irish boarding school. But I'm A Cheerleader is a satirical story of a young lesbian woman being sent to a camp in order to "cure" her, and Brazilian drama The Way He Looks is a wonderful, tender film about the developing love triangle between a blind schoolboy, the handsome new guy in school, and their female best friend. More promising titles are also on the way, including The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, and Boy Erased with Lucas Hedges.

Into Film have also recently collaborated with Peccadillo Pictures on a collection of short films that deal with many aspects of the young LGBT experience, and the BFI's Flare festival continues to showcase a rich array of films for and about young LGBT people from around the world. The extraordinary success of short film In A Heartbeat suggests that it may not be long before studio animations begin to directly acknowledge the sexuality of some of their characters, although several, including FrozenZootropolis and How To Train Your Dragon 2, have strongly hinted that some of their heroes may be LGBT.

Love, Simon has become a huge hit, with stories of young people inspired to come out followings screenings, and it has also been praised for its focus on positive aspects of the modern teen experience, rather than falling back on mawkish sentimentality. Hopefully, its success will encourage studios to produce more films with young LGBT people at their heart, having spent so long either marginalised entirely, taunted, or relegated to the role of comedic sidekick and loyal best friend. And whilst much of the pathos and intelligence of Love, Simon stems from its understanding that coming out is likely to always be a complicated process for young people, it is to be hoped that mainstream film will soon be able to showcase LGBT characters at their centre and have sexuality be completely incidental to the rest of the story.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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