Fred Till reviews the latest LGBT+ classic to hit the high street: Love, Simon. This film has been marketed at a straight audience in many ways and certainly seems an attempt to make LGBT+ culture more mainstream- but is nonetheless a powerful and personal piece. In this article, Fred explores the elements of the plot he relates to and what it says about politics in the US today.
In the collective memory of contemporary Western society, the terms of American presidents are often synonymous with wider phenomena. For Queer men, the historic and cultural associations can be distinct. When I hear ‘the Reagan era’, I think 80s pop culture and the ascendance of neo-liberalism, but also the terror and stigma of the AIDS crisis and its ghostly shadow, still haunting gay life today.
To me say ‘the Bush Jr. presidency’ and I recall growing up in a recently post-9/11 world, when the Lord of the Rings films were screening in cinemas, the iPod was ground-breaking consumer tech, and Green Day’s American Idiot played on a CD bought from the Virgin record shop. I also remember the gently growing uncertainty of my early secondary school years. The gradual realisation that other boys did not see other boys the way I saw other boys; the nagging fear that the risks of speaking about my thoughts and feelings would be, forever, too great.
The ‘Obama years’ were the coming-of-age era for us Millennials when we transitioned from our teenage selves into adulthood – making mistakes, memories and friends in a world structured and disrupted by social media, fractured by income inequality and disillusionment with democracy. Yet for LGBT millennials, our coming-of-age era has also been our coming-out era. Our civil rights are so politically accepted, our representation in popular culture so mainstream, it is almost bizarre to remember that when I started school Section 28 was still the law, in my fresher year same-sex marriage was prohibited everywhere in the UK, or that just 12 years ago around 40% of Americans thought consensual gay sex should always be illegal.
A sign of growing straight recognition of LGBT identities, experiences and stories is the mainstream success of queer-themed films over the past 18 months. Moonlight, 120 Beats per Minute and Call Me by Your Name, are all beautifully-crafted, emotionally jarring tales of the formative experiences of young gay men.
The Oscar-winning Moonlight is a harrowing depiction of a closeted black kid, hiding his sexuality in a sad world shaped by casual brutality, hyper-masculinity and his mother’s drug addiction. 120 Beats per Minute portrays the fear and dignified courage of HIV-positive men campaigning to change attitudes and policy towards the AIDS epidemic in early 90s France. An adaption of André Aciman’s classic 2007 novel about a summer romance in an unnamed Italian idyll between a young academic and a precociously intellectual 17 year-old, Call Me by Your Name overwhelms the senses with sophisticated eroticism and painfully accurate observations of first (gay) love. These are all great independent films demonstrating the simultaneous diversity and universality of queer coming-of-age/coming-out experiences.
Love, Simon is the same but different. Different because it is made by 20th Century Fox with a bigger-budget, slicker soundtrack and more sugary social progressive sentiment than a Hilary Clinton campaign ad. As the first coming-out movie deliberately aiming for straight appeal and blockbuster success it marks a milestone for queer drama. Yet it feels the same as the other films as, surprisingly, it tells a genuinely relatable story with subtlety and grace, successfully expressing the hopes and fears, losses and gains, joys and pains of gay self-realisation in an otherwise unremarkable, middle-class, suburban setting. The sheer ordinariness of Simon’s character for me felt exciting and daring in spite of the movie’s well-calculated safety and charm.
Simon is a bright and relatively popular, yet private, school senior with liberal parents and friends. He begins an email correspondence with an anonymous classmate who he gradually begins to fall for as they confide in each other their secret desires and closeted dreams. However, this precious, mutual support is ruined when Simon’s emails are discovered by slimy theatre geek Martin who blackmails Simon before dramatically outing him online to the whole school on Christmas Eve.
The story, based on Becky Albertalli’s book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, is actually very funny, packed with Glee-esque oddball teachers displaying no qualms about talking sex, witty political references, gay in-jokes, and painfully hilarious romantic missteps. However, the heart and suspense are drawn from the gradually building tension as Simon’s life in the closet unravels and his relationships with parents and peers are thrown into turmoil.
For me, Love, Simon, was just as moving as the other three films because it closely reflected my own teenage experiences, at times uncomfortably so, and in the protagonist (played by Nick Robinson) I saw aspects of myself. I too performed in school shows, whilst remaining on the well-controlled side of the camp scale. I too, had a penchant for wearing hoodies. I too, felt unable to talk to the stereotypically effeminate, flamboyantly ‘out’ boys because I thought we did not have much in common. In fact, I envied their courage and denied the traits we really did share. Like Simon, I held onto the false hope that same-sex attraction would eventually go away.
There is one brief scene when Robinson gets it so right. Despite speaking to Martin who already knows his secret, Simon cannot bring himself to say, ‘I am gay’. He stutters on the ‘g’, tries again and then gives up. The blink-and-you-miss-it moment left me choking back tears as I recalled a time when the most frightening thing in my world was acknowledging the truth out loud to myself. The second tear-jerking scene is the end. Not because it is great art – it is peak feel-good Hollywood with lashings of syrup - but because it reminded me of how far I too had come and how far our culture has journeyed since I made my first tentative, terrifying steps towards sharing my secret with others.
The film features a fancy-dress party, where the character Bram dresses as a “post-retirement Obama”, chilling in Hawaii whilst Trump dismantles his legacy. In 2008, the thought that Love, Simon could be marketed at the youth audience in America with such little controversy would have seemed extraordinary. If there is one positive legacy from the Obama decade that may survive, it could be this. I hope so.