Film & TV

Love, Simon Outs Hollywood’s Youth Exploitation

Nick Robinson and Katherine Langford in Love, Simon (Twentieth Century Fox)
Political contrivance and imitation ruin Berlanti’s gay sitcom.

Simon (Nick Robinson), the 17-year-old white gay high-school student in Love, Simon, appears to be a comic version of the protagonist in Moonlight. Rather than blatantly copy that Oscar-winning black-gay-victim film, Love, Simon remakes the pathetic Moonlight in the more marketable guise of a sitcom about a well-adjusted, middle-class white gay teenager struggling with his need to come out to his friends and family. It shows Hollywood’s true political colors.

Director Greg Berlanti jettisons Moonlight’s maudlin, indie-movie exploitation of racial and economic despair and instead depicts adolescence and sexual naïveté in ways that replicate other, better gay movies: Simon’s age immediately evokes André Téchiné’s Being 17, a critical flop despite being the best movie this decade. When Berlanti’s hero explains his full name, “Simon Spier,” to a potential boyfriend, he flirtatiously notes that it means “one who hears, one who sees.” By this, he signifies the particular, alienated insight that outsiders claim to have into commonly accepted social convention — the perspective of François Ozon’s In the House, a subversive exposé of “normal” customs.

When blackmailed by another awkward student, Simon passively manipulates his schoolmates; deceiving and misleading them. He even deludes his female BFF (Katherine Langford) about her own affections, a plot twist that parrots every John Hughes teen film, though from a gay angle that Hughes avoided. Simon’s suspicion that an anonymous Internet correspondent could be his true love resembles Ducastel-Martineau’s adolescent chronicle My Life on Ice. And, eventually, the entire comedy-of-identity farce references Lionel Baier’s innovative Garçon Stupide.

This emphasis on social acceptance reveals the secret motive of Hollywood progressives: to make a show of political engagement while promoting egoism.

Unlike those European milestones, Love, Simon is totally fake. Berlanti’s artificial focus on Simon’s individuality requires a supporting cast of school kids and compassionate faculty figures who work as audience surrogates. This emphasis on social acceptance reveals the secret motive of Hollywood progressives: to make a show of political engagement while promoting egoism.

Hollywood’s targeting of young people’s self-interest is also apparent in recent social events from the media-revered Parkland Puppet talking heads to the underhanded organization of this week’s national student walk-out. The idea is to twist adolescents, who are already susceptible to flattery and sycophancy, into false consciousness. Berlanti exploits this several times: In one completely false scene, the National Anthem is interrupted for a student’s Kiss-Cam-style declaration, and each character’s action is morally indefensible. Other shams appeal to trite trends: The disrupter, Michael (a weaselly Logan Miller in the film’s best performance), uses “Donald J. Trump” as his phone ID; an already out, femme black male, Ethan (Clark Moore), styles himself after Oprah and instructs Simon, “You think it’s easy?”; and a smiley black friend, Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale), wears a lei to a Halloween party and announces his guise as “post-presidency Barack Obama.” The latter jest also plays into the film’s contrived finale — and fans of Get Out will see it coming.

You can relate to Love, Simon only superficially, which was also Moonlight’s con when it passed off race and sex stereotypes as insight into private emotion. This pretense ruins all the commercially promoted films about gay experience that receive mainstream-media approval — from Brokeback Mountain to Call Me by Your Name.  The only PC ploy that Love, Simon improves is the parental-confession scene. The father–son reconciliation between Josh Duhamel and Robinson is unbalanced by the erotics of glamour, yet it’s not so creepy as Call Me by Your Name, in which the father (Michael Stuhlbarg) confessed his own deranged ethics and sexual envy — an outrageous promotion of anti-family radicalism. Simon’s mother (Jennifer Garner) starts off well “It’s part of what you have to go through yourself.” But she then reveals a more typical defect: “You deserve everything you want.” This is outright Hollywood cajolery, the sentimental basis of PC pop culture. It is vastly different from the offhand greatness of Téchiné’s parent–child scenes and Being 17’s simple yet profound final advice.

I’m fairly confident that Berlanti, who made his directorial debut in 2000 with The Broken Hearts Club (a satisfactory gay The Big Chill), is as aware of Being 17 as he is of Moonlight. But now that he has become a prolific TV producer, he has succumbed to trite sanctimony and the worst habits of popular persuasion. (A tease with a waffle-house waiter deceitfully substitutes the drama class’s Cabaret fanatic who might obviously crush on Simon, missing the kind of logical plot development that gave the 2015 teen romance The DUFF its surprising, uncanny, gay essence.)

A fantasy sequence about Simon coming out at college and celebrating, La La Land–style, to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” should have inspired powerful cultural reflection. Unfortunately, Love, Simon (written by a team from TV’s This Is Us) traipses over the opportunity for personal revelation. Instead of saying that Love, Simon rips off the beautiful Ferris-wheel metaphor in Garçon Stupide, one of the best gay films ever made, I’ll be generous: Berlanti merely traduces it. No matter how much mainstream Hollywood talks about inclusion, Love, Simon proves that its primary concern is the status quo.

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