While Hollywood has had its fair share of queer storytelling on screens large and small, hardly ever has it been supported by a major film studio and almost never has it been situated against the backdrop of high school. That is until 20th Century Fox's dramedy "Love, Simon" hits theaters March 16.
"As a young gay man I never had this movie," director Greg Berlanti said on set here last year, "so I felt like I had to make it my priority and be a part of something that hasn't been done before."
"Love, Simon" follows 17-year-old Simon, played by "Jurassic World" and "Everything, Everything" heartthrob Nick Robinson, who has yet to tell his family or friends that he's gay. His only confidant is an anonymous classmate he trades emails with online and soon realizes he's in love with. When another classmate discovers that, Simon finds himself threatened with being outed to the entire school, something for which he's not ready.
The coming-of-age, coming-out story, told with echoes of the beloved teen films of John Hughes, boasts a stellar ensemble of young actors, including Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Logan Miller, Keiynan Lonsdale and "13 Reasons Why" Golden Globe nominee Katherine Langford in her first film.
Berlanti said that when he first read the script, written by the "This is Us" team of Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, he immediately bonded with Simon.
"I thought it was heartfelt and smart and funny," Berlanti said. "I connected a lot with the lead character, and the switch just went off: A, I have to really be a part of this and B, even if I don't end up getting the job, I have to let them know what I think so they can make the best version of this movie possible."
He then read Becky Albertalli's young adult novel, "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda," on which the movie is based, which he credits for deepening the connection.
Albertalli never thought her first book, which she started drafting in 2013, would ever be published, let alone become a film. Ultimately, she thought, "If this never gets picked up, no matter who [my kids] turn out to be and who they love, I can whip this out on my hard drive and say, 'I'm cool with it and don't read Chapter 9.'"
Albertalli, who lives in an Atlanta suburb, was a constant, welcome presence on set, undoubtedly a positive for the book's dedicated fan base worldwide, which has, since the film's production was announced, been very vocal online about expectations for the picture.
"When the cameras are rolling, it's as if I'm watching something that was pulled out of my head but better," she said, an effort to reassure fans that this is a movie they'll be proud of.
Robinson said he understands the importance of the character Simon and the overall film.
"I can absolutely relate to Simon's journey of finding out who you are and that this story has not been told for this audience in this context by a major studio before… This is truly a project that has the potential to reach some people, to help some people," he said.
Langford, who while shooting had become one of Twitter's favorite new actresses — the Netflix release of "13 Reasons Why" prompted countless fans to change their profile icons to photos of her — reiterated the importance of the film.
"It feels like we're doing something that's going to make a difference," she said. "That kind of lifts everyone and makes us work harder. Everyone has got the message."
Before heading back to film a cafeteria scene, Berlanti wanted to reassure audiences — those already fans of the book as well as those tracking the historical undertaking this film carries with its anti-bullying and acceptance-of-LGBTQ-people message — that he and the cast aren't squandering the opportunity.
"The same thing I felt when I read the book is the same feeling I felt when I read the script," he said. "Now, I feel emotionally the same things when we're making the scenes. I feel like that's the best way for me to represent the material, by making it as true emotionally as I can. We honor the book while also making it work as a film."