Early in Love, Simon, the hero jokes about getting together with friends and watching bad ’90s teen movies—the real joke being that Love, Simon essentially is a ’90s teen movie … with a few tweaks. Already acclaimed for being the first wide multiplex release with a gay high-schooler as its protagonist, Love, Simon dutifully follows the outline of other groundbreaking movies since at least the time of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Put another way, it’s as bland as vanilla pudding. But unless you’re completely vanilla-phobic, the movie’s unforced good feelings are easy to enjoy.
You’re probably wondering: Hasn’t this ground been broken? There have been plenty of gay teens in TV and indie movies, but let’s allow Love, Simon its distinction in opening in 2,400 theaters at once.
If having a gay hero is one divergence from the ’90s teen formula, the other is smartphone culture, which, it turns out, determines our plot. Simon (Nick Robertson) is a closeted high-school senior who gets into a simpatico texting ritual with an anonymous classmate, also gay. Simon’s parents (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and little sister don’t know about his orientation, and he’s kept it from lifelong pal Leah (Katherine Langford, who keeps threatening to put tang in her long-suffering character, if only the movie would let her).
The film’s big contrivance—and a genuinely unpleasant one—is that Simon’s drama-nerd classmate (Logan Miller) discovers the secret texting, and threatens to out Simon unless Simon helps him date a mutual friend, Abby (Alexandra Shipp, a standout). All those years of High School Musical goodwill, ruined by this one rotten guy.
Director Greg Berlanti, a veteran of youth-oriented TV like Dawson’s Creek and Everwood, knows how to uncork the revelations and setbacks. He sweetly handles the moment Simon finally blurts out “I’m gay”—to someone we don’t expect—and Berlanti lets Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell work tasty variations on the usual “wacky teacher” roles.
Working from Becky Albertalli’s novel, screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker scatter the pop-culture references with aplomb; when Simon walks in on his secret crush making out with a girl at a Halloween party, the zany sounds of “Monster Mash” fill the house, because of course that would be playing as someone’s heart is pierced.
In one subversion of those bad ’90s teen movies—and undoubtedly a few good ’80s John Hughes films—the big scene where a guy professes his passion in front of the entire school is given not to the hero or the lovable sidekick, but to the villain. And he looks like a stalkery jackass, not a hopeless romantic.
Robertson, a Seattle native who made an agreeable mark in The Kings of Summer and Jurassic World, plays it mostly straight, as it were. This may be partly because Simon’s keeping his secret, but the movie also amiably suggests that different colors exist along the rainbow—more flamboyant shade, in every sense, is provided by sassy classmate Ethan (Clark Moore). In one sequence, Simon wonders whether he’ll somehow be gayer when he goes away to college, so we see his fantasy of dancing to Whitney Houston with a chorus line of fraternity brothers —a sequence that fizzles with Simon shaking his head and muttering, “Maybe not that gay.” In the end, Love, Simon wins the day by poking fun not just at bad ’90s movies, but also at itself.