Love, Simon is breaking ground in Hollywood in the most simplistic way: it is the first major studio film about a gay teenager. It follows the closeted Simon (Nick Robinson) as he begins an email correspondence with another secretly gay student at his school, neither boy knows the other’s true identity, but their relationship blossoms regardless. It’s importance cannot be overstated, but superlatives aside, Love, Simon is teen romcom perfection with a saccharin soundtrack of electro-pop and John Hughes inspired awkwardness.
A particularly funny sequence in the film sees Simon imagine what it would be like if his straight friends had to announce their sexuality to their parents, like he needs to. ‘I like men,’ one of the girls reveals. Her mother starts weeping. ‘I’m a heterosexual.’ one of the boys announces during dinner. His father storms out. The realistic and heartbreaking responses that many gay people receive from their families is hilariously subverted to accentuate how ludicrous it is not to accept someone’s sexuality in this day and age.
Up until recently, there has been a disconcerting lack of positive pop-culture representation for young LGBTQ+ people. The last time a comedy with a gay lead character was a financial success was in 1996 with The Birdcage. It made $120 million at the box office, the equivalent of a modern day blockbuster. In this boisterous comedy, the dearly departed Robin Williams and Nathan Lane (best known to my generation as the voice of Timon in The Lion King) play a gay couple that run a drag bar. When their son announces his engagement to the daughter of a conservative family, they scramble to find a way to hide their sexuality when they visit. After failing to teach the more flamboyant of the two men how to ‘act straight’, the dress him in drag and have him pretend to be a woman. The dialogue is witty and the comedic timing is impeccable, but the humour works on another level too. Just like in Love, Simon, the film makes society turn an eye on itself and realise how ridiculous it is to ask someone to be anything other than themself.
Unfortunately, mainstream acceptance of gay comedy peaked back in 1996. Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005 and very quickly became known as the ‘gay cowboy movie’. In this case, the media made a devastating story of two men that suffer through their inability to be with each other for their entire lives into a joke.
In the following years, LGBTQ+ cinema became overrun with a trope called ‘Bury Your Gays’. If there was a queer character on screen, they were probably going to die. If there was an actor playing a queer character that dies and the film was ‘based on a true story’, they probably got an Oscar nod. Take Philip Seymour-Hoffman playing Truman Capote, Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf or Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing. The list of straight actors that play transgender characters as an awards gambit is also endless: Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, Jeffrey Tambour and so on. Jodie Foster is the only openly gay person to win a Lead Acting Oscar (Of course, there are many actors, from Marlon Brando to Kevin Spacey, who were not publicly known to be anything other than straight at the time of their Oscar win). Daniela Vega of the acclaimed film A Fantastic Woman was the first trans person to ever present an award at the Oscar, this year. If LGBTQ+ characters were rarely seen, LGBTQ+ actors were almost invisible.
A decade after Brokeback Mountain, the Academy snubbed Carol for Best Picture. Thankfully, the last two years have seen a new dawn of queer cinema that is becoming less morbid; from Korean film The Handmaiden, to France’s 150 BPM, to the English God’s Own Country. But even mainstream successes like Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name were beautiful, but bittersweet.
The lives of LGBTQ+ people in the past have been sullied with suffering, from the AIDS epidemic to the criminalisation of homosexuality, and many films have been true depictions of the tough reality for queer people. Some of this hardship still remains. In a 2016 survey of Irish LGBTQ+ teens, 56% said they had self-harmed and 70% said they had seriously considered suicide. Internationally, one in five people identify as LGBTQ+ and these people are three times more likely to die by suicide than straight people.
On the press tour for Love, Simon, lead actor Nick Robinson discussed how his brother had come out to him during production of the film. Similarly, Keiynan Lonsdale, who plays Bram in the film, revealed that even though his friends and family were aware of his bisexuality, he did not come out to the cast of the film until the end of production. Lonsdale has touched upon an important and rarely discussed aspect of queer life; that coming out is not one static moment in time, but a personal and often frightening thing that queer have to do every time they meet someone new.
There are still people out there who may ask: does this really matter? Don’t we live in a post-Moonlight world, in which it doesn’t matter who is gay and who is straight? Am I praising what is essentially ‘just another teen romcom’, simply because it’s gay? Well, the film’s tagline says it all: You deserve a great love story. It speaks directly to the people who need this film most, the ones who have never seen themselves on film before, the ones who could never have wished for a film like this when they were young, the ones who have never even considered the possibility of a happy ending for themselves. Love, Simon is a revelation, a beacon of light in a world of LGBTQ+ stories marred by grief and loss. Why is Love, Simon important? Because, everyone deserves a great love story.
Muireann O’Shea – Film Editor