Director Greg Berlanti (The Broken Hearts Club) is breaking new ground Friday with the release of Love, Simon, the first mainstream gay teen romance movie to open in American theaters, and the reviews have identified a common theme: It’s like John Hughes, but with progressive social commentary.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Love, Simon is set to debut to widespread acclaim, with critics praising its big heart, its diverse and talented cast, and its revolutionary normalcy.
Rolling Stone's Peter Travers put it this way: Love, Simon, which to him "is a John Hughes movie for audiences who just got woke," aspires to the perfect amount of sweetness — "it wins you over by capturing your heart without pushing too hard for the prize." Though he notes that the film appears to walk on eggshells so as to give it universal appeal, that doesn't detract from its ultimate power: "For all its attempts not to offend, it's a genuine groundbreaker."
Writing for THR, Jon Frosch agrees: "While there inevitably will be grumbles from those who would have preferred a grittier portrayal of the gay adolescent experience, Love, Simon’s vanilla-ness is also what makes it culturally significant and even slightly subversive." He also notes its John Hughes similarities, explaining that "the film looks and sounds like so many other mainstream, John Hughes-nostalgic high-school-coms you’ve seen on both big and small screens, just with one difference: The hero is gay.”
But there is also another revolutionary aspect of the film — its portrayal of Simon's search for queer companionship, something Anne Cohen highlights in her review for The Atlantic. “That’s the best part of the film — the dramatization of a search for community and the isolation that many gay teenagers can experience even if they live in relatively supportive environments,” writes Cohen, who points out that "'Blue,' [Simon's] unknown pen-pal, offers the kind of understanding that his straight friends and family can’t." All of that is "enough to make Love, Simon a pioneering film."
Still, Cohen had reservations about the character of Simon, who she says “often feels like a personality vacuum." While the ensemble is an eclectic and charming mix, especially Alexandra Shipp's Abby, "the characters around Simon are almost better-developed than the protagonist himself."
Mark Jenkins of SF Gate was less dazzled by the film, which he sees as overly derivative — down to the the fact that it is "stuffed with pop songs," which is "typical of high-school movies." To Jenkins, "Simon's love for rock of the British Invasion is unpersuasive, but then so are all his passions. Like the movie about him, Simon is pleasant, well-meaning and curiously devoid of adolescent hormonal tumult."
Refinery 29's Anne Cohen enjoyed the film, arguing that it "manages to highlight the small ways in which even the most accepting and open-minded among us can make coming out difficult, even in 2018. It's in the small, almost absent-minded put-downs," such as Simon's dad calling a The Bachelor lead "clearly gay." Still, Cohen felt the film did not do enough to address the privilege of its white, upper-middle-class protagonist — "Simon's idea of the relatable teenage experience ('We do everything friends do: we drink way too much iced coffee while gorging on carbs') smacks of immense privilege."
Yet the reviews have nonetheless remained overwhelmingly positive. The Guardian's Benjamin Lee lauds Love, Simon for its "educational significance for a wider audience in its well-orchestrated portrayal of the specific and intricate difficulties of being a gay teen. The daily deception, the constructed behaviors, the niggling fear of exposure — there are nifty, poignant insights into how terrifying an already terrifying time can be."
He sums up his thoughts this way: "While [the struggle to come out is] an experience we’ve seen on the big screen before (Moonlight’s middle section handled it heartbreakingly well), it’s never played out on such a grand stage before and at such a vital moment in time."