Berlanti: Love, Simon (2018)
While side queer characters have almost become par for the course in teen dramas, it’s taken until 2018 for a major Hollywood studio to release a teen queer romance. That film is Love, Simon, which in its own way feels as groundbreaking and foundational as Black Panther, a step forward in queer visibility whose most original and audacious feature may be the way in which it refuses to announce itself as anything especially original and audacious. Assuming a certain baseline normality and even banality to the experience of being queer, Isaac Aptaker and Elizabth Berger’s script – based on the young adult novel by Becky Albertalli – centres on Simon, a young closeted queer man attending high school in the suburbs of Atlanta, and his relationship with his friends and family as he comes to terms with his sexuality. From the outset, it’s clear that the challenges that Simon faces are very different from those articulated by queer teenagers even a decade ago, as the very radicalism that allowed queer teenagers to articulate themselves in the first place is now framed as a burden and even a source of oppression – the burden of having to live up to an omnivorous and radicalised sexual history that doesn’t seem to correlate with Simon’s experiences of his sexuality in the present. Whereas an older kind of queer film might have focused on characters anxious to dissociate themselves from stereotypes, here it’s queerness itself as a politicised and collectivised discourse that seems most oppressive, creating an odd and often ambivalent relationship to any kind of broader queer community.
For that reason, I must admit that I found Love, Simon a bit confronting at first, as the film enacts a kind of performative oblivion to its indebtedness to the very discourses that enable that oblivion in the first place. The opening scenes, in particular, are almost aggressive in their studied distance from anything resemble a queer countercultural impulse, as director Greg Berlanti outlines an aesthetic more suited to the Hallmark Channel than to even the most sentimental of big-budget Hollywood films, as we’re introduced to Simon as the son of two affluent, upwardly mobile, middle class parents – Jack (Josh Duhamel) and Emily (Jennifer Garner) – who themselves met at high school, where he was the star quarterback and she was the star valedictorian. As Simon observes in his opening monologue, his parents defied expectations by managing to maintain their high school romance, and their high school status, well into their adult lives, with his queerness quickly coming to play – somewhat improbably – as the logical conclusion of this most normative of familial and sexual pairings. Not surprisingly, then, Simon’s own sensibility is almost aggressively vanilla as well, ticking off multiple demographics in an inoffensive blend of interests that include soccer, Eliott Smith and Harry Potter. Even the way in which he “discovers” his queerness seems decidedly un-queer, since it stems from his fandom for Daniel Radcliffe, Panic! At The Disco and Game of Thrones, here combined and fused into a normcore canon of taste that turns queerness itself into the most “straight” and conventional of aesthetic orientations.
No surprise, then, that Love, Simon defines queerness against the nerdy, bad, cult taste – the sense of camp – that sustained queerness for so many generations. In one of the many breathtakingly provocative leaps that pepper the script, it’s actually the straight bully – the character who blackmails Simon upon learning of his sexuality – who’s associated with this sense of camp, decking his bedroom out with old midnight move posters and cinephilic marginalia, and inducing Simon to lampoon him for arriving at a Halloween party looking like “a drag queen covered in magnetic poetry.” Meanwhile, Simon himself comes as John Lennon, part of a simultaneous movement away from any musical taste conventionally absorbed or claimed by queerness, a gesture that culminates with Simon imagining arriving at university to a Whitney Houston montage, only to pull back and realise he doesn’t want to be “that gay.” As someone who often doesn’t feel all “that gay,” myself, I couldn’t help but connect at some level with the sentiment here, and yet there’s also something about this blithe erasure of camp – as a source of sustenance, solidarity and strength – that’s quite unsettling. At times, it’s hard not feel that there’s almost something of a drawbridge mentality going on, with Simon so sequestered within liberal white suburbia that the film can afford to dismiss the messier and more complicated aesthetic orientations of those who haven’t yet arrived at his position of seamless security, since it’s clear from the very beginning that everyone is going to accept him if and when he finally chooses to come out.
That’s not to say that the film exactly dismisses or ignores this other, messier queerness. Still, the way in which it handles other queer characters also made me uncomfortable, as Berlanti sets up a spectrum from the “invisible” white queer guy, represented by Simon, to the “obvious” black queer guy, represented by Ethan, played by Clark Moore, who also attends Simon’s school. Compared to Simon, Ethan doesn’t just come off as openly queer, but so radically fluid in his gender identity that I originally wondered whether he was supposed to be trans. In the early parts of the film, Ethan functions as a kind of horrific horizon of visibility for Simon, as well as providing an implicit version of a character who is “too queer,” despite the eventual rapprochement that Simon has with him in the principal’s office. Of course, I don’t want to disregard the insidious power of stereotypes, which can be just as harmful in the queer community as anywhere else. After all, the pressure on a young queer man to be a fabulous alpha queer is really not all that different from the pressure on a young straight man to be a fabulous alpha male. Still, I was uncomfortable with the way in which race factored into this equation, as the film blithely ignores – can’t possibly acknowledge – the fact that Simon has the privilege of invisibility to start off with, since his whiteness, and his body, blends so much more naturally with his whitebread suburban surroundings that remaining closeted is an option for him in a way it simply isn’t for Ethan.
As much as the film might be peppered with compensatory multiculturalism, then, it takes place in a world in which the visibility of black bodies is by no means taken for granted, and in which the burden of providing a litmus test for queerness therefore falls upon black bodies in quite an emphatic way. While the pressure to experience queerness as something radically world-changing can be overwhelming sometimes, Love, Simon therefore often goes in the other direction, adopting such a world-affirming aesthetic that it removes any real sense of suspense, since it’s clear that Simon is going to be seamlessly incorporated back into his world as soon as he announces his orientation. Yet that’s also the broader fantasy of the film – the idea of coming-out as a non-event – and part and parcel of its programmatic refusal to connect queerness to any kind of family dynamic, trauma or etiology. Instead, queerness just is, and just exists, and even if existence here is contingent upon a particular kind of white middle-class subjectivity, that’s still possibly the first time I’ve ever been able to say this about a Hollywood film, which is a kind of groundbreaking thing in and of itself.
In that sense, the power of Love, Simon lies in the way in which it opens up a space of possibility in which queerness might be assumed to be normal, or in which queerness might simply occur in a film without having to be explained, contextualized or “introduced” in any kind of emphatic way. From that perspective, the film really is the sheer gesture of placing a queer character at the centre of the film, a gesture that is still so incongruous with contemporary Hollywood that Berlanti frequently reaches back to the teen films of John Hughes as a temporary vocabulary for articulating how this change might present itself. The gesture is clear from the opening scenes, which are set to Bleachers, the band most associated with the John Hughes revivalism of the 2010s music scene, and whose album Strange Desire provides many of the sonic tics and cues for the film that unfolds. Yet the effect isn’t merely one of pastiche, or of modish 80s nostalgia, so much as a prescience that the breathless affect of Hughes’ films was already, in some sense, about coming out, if only as a form of announcing yourself and your individuality to the world, as per the final scene of The Breakfast Club. In a beautiful act of cinematic revisionism, then, Berlanti discovers high school homoeroticism as the unspoken object of Hughes’ oeuvre, as Simon gradually learns to situate his articulaion of same-sex desire within a broader and more Hughes-esque sense of adolescent becoming: “Do you ever feel weird? Sometimes I feel as if I am always on the outside, like there’s an invisible line I have to cross to really be a part of anything.”
While Love, Simon may often recall the aesthetic universes of both 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale, then, in many ways it offers a more completely adumbrated version of their anxious relationship to the 80s, as Berlanti locates queerness in all the awkward interstices of adolescent life, but also frames adolescent life as inherently queer as well. Key to that recognition is the discovery, on Simon’s part, that shame is an inherently adolescent experience, with one of the most powerful scenes in the film occurring after the nerd who tried to blackmail him is shamed on the football field, in a scene that in another kind of film would have been reserved for precisely the queer side character that Berlanti is so anxious to avoid in his characterization and presentation of Simon. As the film blossoms out in its second half, this turns into a fully-fledged nostalgia for an older kind of closet epistemology, and for all the analog spaces of sexual disclosure and coming out, the spaces where my friends and I came out – sitting in cars late at night, bedrooms after parties, and the quiet backwaters and corners of our high schools. At the heart of those disclosures are the perfectly pitched “oh”s with which Simon’s friends successively respond to his coming-out – sublimely suspended in a space that’s neither surprised nor knowing, and so divested of the two main reactive registers with which coming-out tends to be greeted upon social media.
Or, rather, the two registers with which being outed tends to be greeted on social media, since the film’s nostalgia from the 80s also feels like a reaction against a present tense in which sexual disclosure and shame is so intimately bound up with digital dissemination that having queer feelings and being outed on digital media often seem to be the same thing. As strange as it may sound to those of us who grew up before the internet, Love, Simon yearns for a time when the necessity of face-to-face disclosure meant that you at least had some control over your utterances – that’s the fantasy of the film, anyway – generating what might be described as an erotics of the coming-out moment, and the cruisey spaces of semi-disclosure and open secrets that spread out around it. Many of the most memorable scenes in the film turn on an experience totally alien to our digital hookup world – namely, the fear, and thrill, of cruising someone, or checking someone out, without quite knowing whether or they’re queer and those situations, in which disclosure and flirtation amount to the same thing, inform the erotics of Love, Simon, resulting in a series of extraordinary scene in which Simon wanders the corridors of his life while considering whether everyone he passes might be queer, and the breathless gaze of teen romances is here infused with a more open homoerotissm, a fleeting, flickering homoerotic potential in even the straightest of gazes.
In other words, Love, Simon evinces a deep anxiety about the power of digital media to erode the erotic future of young queer people, with even its most staid and normcore elements gradually converging on a determination to restore the breathless eroticism of John Hughes’ universe for the sake of a new queer generation. It’s here that the film’s unusual allegory of social media – as brilliant, in its way, as 13 Reasons Why – comes into play, as Simon pointedly ignores SnapChat, Instagram, Grindr or any of the other applications that young people often use when experimenting with identity, sexual or otherwise, from a provisional distance. Indeed, the film’s only reference to Grindr comes when Simon’s father jokes about joining it together – “it’s a social networking site, right?” – in a sequence that is bookended with him shooting some hoops with his son before they head into watch a family video for the parents’ anniversary. No other scene in the film does more to situate and contain queerness within the family unit, and yet no other scene does as much, either, to restore a certain erotics and haptics to the moment of self-disclosure itself. For, with Grindr and all its affiliates reduced to a daggy Dad Joke, the film is finally free to fully focus on its main digital interface – a crude chat room that looks more like a 90s AOL fixture than anything else, so antiquated that you’d have to assume it would be all but indiscernible to this millennial demographic, except as an object of camp or cult nostalgia.
Nevertheless, this is the main digital conduit through which the film revolves, as Simon meets another queer student at the school called Blue, and starts an online correspondence with him that quickly results in him falling in love. I’ve left discussion of this plot point to the end just because it’s both the most incongruous and the most crucial part of the film’s narrative drive, as Simon finds himself spending day after day wondering which of his classmates might actually be Blue. While this social media exchange determines the film, it’s simultaneously the only social media platform we ever see, with Berlanti holding back even from the Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat cognates that suffuse so many teen dramas. In their place, Simon conducts nearly all his correspondence with Blue at his desktop computer – a quintessentially 90s tableau – while his SmartPhone never quite seems to sync up with his desktop computer, meaning that he’s continually receiving mobile calls, landline calls and in-person reminders to check what’s happening on the “chat site.” Not surprisingly, the site itself is also quite primitive, and reminded me of some of the earliest online gay networking forums, in what often feels like a series of scenes from Gilmore Girls, or other turn-of-the-century television series, rather than a text set and composed in the present.
What ensues is a kind of inversion of the intimidating prospect of queer digital media as a perusal and differentiation of bodies, in which Simon actually falls in love with Blue before ever connecting with him physically, attaching to his mind before he attaches to his physique. In a world in which the digital future for young queer people must often seem to loom as a source of physical shame – whether by being judged on a dating site or being outed on a social site – that’s a deft fantasy, as Simon brokers a cinematic 80s affect with a 00s digital affect to arrive at a version of the present in which it’s finally possible to conceive of himself as “destined to care so much about one person it nearly kills me.” In that sense, the film fantasises a version of social media that can nurture privacy, confidence and ultimately facilitate coming-out as as a positive social media event. By the final scenes, Simon’s tremulous announcements to his friends have been generalized into a public announcement of self that may still be disseminated through social media, but is still primarily an embodied, experiential and interpersonal communion with the high school as a whole, who gather around him as he prepares to finally meet Blue on the ferris wheel at the local carnival. At that moment, being queer becomes just another form of selfhood, as Simon’s gesture prompts a series of other coming-out moments, some of which are still grounded in sexual orientation, but many of which focus on other issues, from confessions of eating disorders, to grief about parents not showing interest in attending school events.
It’s this final part of the film that I found most moving and most heart-warming, as the non-queerness of the opening act migrates into a vision of high school life in which the disclosure of queerness – and the prospect of queer shame – is allowed to be the driving factor behind every interaction and affect without ever losing its distinctive identity either. Midway through the film, Simon asks “why is straight the default?” and in this last section of the film it often feels as if Berlanti is posing a similar question: how, exactly, would a high school film look if queerness was the norm, rather than the exception? As the first film to really inhabit and embrace that thought-experiment, Love, Simon may be a little blithe when it comes to the queer past, or to the diversity of queerness, but the breathtaking audacity of the question ultimately trumps some of the thornier points of its execution, at least for me, to present a vision of the world that simply assumes that queerness exists, rather than having to make an argument or case for it, as so often occurs in even the most liberal of Hollywood films. It’s that turn towards assumption, rather than argument, that seems to have alienated some stauncher viewers from the film, yet it’s an assumption that in its very blitheness and studied oblivion feels monumentally world-changing, if only by assuming that the world so many of us want to inhabit might already be somehow in reach.
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