1:00 pm EDT, March 15, 2018

‘Love, Simon’ movie review: Very important gay love story is also really good

Love, Simon arrives with a lot of expectations on its shoulders by breaking new ground as the first major studio release with an LGBTQ lead.

While we’ve had a rush of queer cinema in the independent film space in recent years, there hasn’t been anything with this level of reach. Here is a film meant for YA audiences and one that will be released in thousands of theaters nationwide. This is a big deal, and what’s an even bigger deal is that it’s not only serviceable and good — it leaps into the territory of being great.

The titular Simon (Nick Robinson, Jurassic World) emphasizes in an opening voiceover that his life is quite ordinary, with parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and friends (Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why) who are all attractive and nice. The normalcy of his life is played up perhaps in an attempt to ease in straight audiences, but it’s also to show his existence really is quite drama-free except for that one huge detail: he’s gay.

Related: Love, Simon and the importance of an LGBTQ happy ending

When Simon hears about a fellow closeted classmate posting anonymously on the school blog, he decides to take his first steps in coming out. He strikes up an email exchange with this student who goes by the pseudonym of “Blue.”

Things become complicated when their correspondence gets in the hands of a smarmy theater kid, Martin (Logan Miller, Take Me to the River), who uses it to blackmail Simon. This sends Simon into a tailspin as he weaves lies and unintentionally pawns his own friends in an effort to keep his secret safe, all the while trying to decipher who could be the mysterious “Blue.”

As we watch Simon navigate this turmoil, you could make the argument he is a rather vacant character, more of a vessel than a full-fledged personality. But here, relatability is key, and young gay audience members seeing themselves and being able to project their own experiences is crucial. This is also a character who is still closeted and hasn’t discovered exactly who he’ll be or what interests he’ll take on once out of the closet for good.

For me, the gentle performance from Nick Robinson hit all the right beats and brought pangs of bittersweet nostalgia as I thought back to my own coming out in high school.

The script from Elizabeth Berger (This Is Us) and Isaac Aptaker, adapted from Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, along with tender direction from the openly gay Greg Berlanti, the film has a comfortable cadence, like a gay version of a John Green adaptation.

Familiarity and warmth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the narrative device of Martin’s blackmailing scheme leads the film into unexpectedly moving territory by the third act. When Simon really begins opening up to his friends and family, the film soars.

Related: The 10 most anticipated queer movies coming out in 2018

The supporting cast is all effective, as well, especially Jennifer Garner who delivers the film’s watershed moment, a beautiful speech of acceptance and understanding.

Tony Hale zips in and out of scenes as the school’s eager to please vice principal, and Natasha Rothwell (Insecure) is hysterical as the scene-stealing theater teacher. Clark Moore is also a stand-out as Ethan, a very out and proud classmate who, unlike Simon, isn’t at all afraid to be exactly who he is.

Straight teens for decades have been able to head to the theater and watch a sappy coming-of-age romance. With Love, Simon, this is the first time young gay audiences are able to do the same thing.

What sets this apart from acclaimed gay cinema such as Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name is its purely commercial intention, which is radical in of itself, even if this isn’t the superior film. Also worth noting is the emphasis here on gay triumph, rather than gay tragedy. With such, we get the thrill of watching two guys kiss on the big screen in an unabashed happy ending.

Grade: B+

‘Love, Simon’ opens in theaters March 16, 2018

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