Meet Hollywood’s first gay teen blockbuster

Teenage dream: Alexandra Shipp, Nick Robinson, Jorge Lendeborg Jr and Katherine Langford. © Fox

Did Love, Simon arrive too late? The romantic comedy is the first mainstream teen movie to feature a gay character in the leading role. But some say it is not as groundbreaking as it sounds.

“Mom, there’s something I have to tell you,” says a character in Love, Simon, a new teenage romantic comedy that comes out in the UK next week. She bites her lip nervously. “I’m straight. I’m sorry.”

Her mother bursts into horrified tears. “Oh, God! Help me, Jesus!” she sobs.

Of course, this is an absurd fantasy, dreamed up by the movie’s main character: a closeted American high school student named Simon Spier. “It doesn’t seem fair that only gay people have to come out,” says his voiceover. “Why is straight the default?”

This is the central question of the film, based on a 2015 YA novel by Becky Albertalli. Simon and his friends love watching teen rom-coms, but the love stories are all straight.

In fact, Love, Simon itself is the first gay film in that genre to be released by a major film studio (20th Century Fox). It has all the hallmarks of the genre: bullies, house parties, friendship drama, embarrassing parents and a sweet love story full of misunderstandings.

For this, it is being hailed as a landmark moment for LGBT young people. There have been films about teenagers coming out before, such as But I’m A Cheerleader in 1999. But they were released by small, independent studios. More recently, Oscar winners Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight both featured gay teenage protagonists — but the films were firmly aimed at adult art-house audiences.

Yet in Time magazine, Daniel D’Addario questioned whether today’s gay teenagers really “need this movie.” “Kids like Simon, in 2018, already have a good shot of fitting in,” he wrote. After all, he has a good life: he is wealthy, popular, good looking and “carefully built to seem as straight as possible”. He knows that his parents will support him. He is played by a straight actor.

That is not to say that LGBT teenagers do not still struggle. Last year Stonewall found that 45% of LGBT youth had been bullied for their identity in the UK.

But does Love, Simon play it too safe?

Simon says…

Yes, say some. It “feels like a film responding to an entirely different culture, like one in which gay marriage was never legalised,” writes D’Addario. Surely there are more interesting stories to tell about today’s LGBT young people? Making a film that so carefully mimics straight romance feels flat and uninteresting.

That “normality” is exactly what makes it special, argue others. There’s no whiff of tragedy to the story, as there is in so many other LGBT films. It’s sweet and happy. Gay teenagers have not had that before, and they need it. The optimistic portrayal of coming out has already encouraged people to come out to their own friends and family, including one of the film’s own actors. That is all the proof you need.

You Decide

  1. Do teenagers need a film like Love, Simon?
  2. How important is it to see characters like you in films and on TV?

Activities

  1. As a class, list all of the LGBT characters you can remember seeing on TV and film. Discuss: were they good or bad role models for young people? Was their sexuality treated as a joke? And do their stories have happy endings?
  2. Write a scene from your own film about a teenager who has a secret they are keeping from friends and family.

Some People Say...

“The only queer people are those who don’t love anybody.”

Rita Mae Brown

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Love, Simon is rated a 12A, and it will be out next Tuesday (April 6) in UK cinemas. It has already been out in the US for two weeks, where it earned $11.8 million over its opening weekend, roughly the amount expected of it. It has generally received positive views from critics, and it currently has a high audience rating of 93% on the website Rotten Tomatoes.
What do we not know?
Whether “ordinary” LGBT love stories will become the norm in Hollywood. There have been several very high-profile LGBT art-house movies over the last few years, most notably Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. But gay characters are still largely absent from mainstream movies, except as side characters. There have still been no openly gay superheroes or Disney characters, for example.

Word Watch

Closeted
Someone who is “in the closet”, meaning they identify as LGBT but have not told other people yet.
YA novel
Titled Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and published by Penguin in the UK.
But I’m A Cheerleader
The story of a popular American cheerleader who is sent away to “True Directions”, a conversion therapy camp where teenagers are sent to be “cured” of being gay.
Call Me By Your Name
The film was nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, and it won Best Adapted Screenplay. It is about a 17-year-old who has an affair with his father’s summer assistant in Italy in 1983.
Moonlight
Winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar. The film is about a young black man growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami while coming to terms with being gay.
Art-house
A serious and artistic film, usually made by an independent studio. Arthouse films are generally aimed at niche audiences, rather than mass markets.
45%
This has decreased from 55% in 2012, suggesting that things are getting better for LGBT young people in Britain, but it is still significantly high.