Sweet, funny and disarming, “Love, Simon” features not one but two daringly public declarations of love. I won’t say too much about either, except that in both cases the stakes are high and the consequences potentially disastrous. The first one involves a boy trying to woo his dream girl at a high school football game, a spectacle that is embarrassing but not exactly unheard-of, either in real life or in the movies.
The second declaration, however, is made by one boy to another, and as such it carries with it not just an element of novelty but also a measure of aching vulnerability and risk to which our theater screens, even in 2018, are still not entirely accustomed. For all the routine and sometimes accurate complaints that Hollywood has run out of original ideas, “Love, Simon,” billed as the first gay teen romantic comedy released by a major movie studio (20th Century Fox), offers a pointed reminder that originality is always a highly elastic concept.
At first glance, this movie’s crowd-pleasing, PG-13-rated slickness may seem the very opposite of fresh or vital. Like many a teen comedy, it serves up a snappier, more attractive and digestible vision of lived-in reality. It turns school hallways and suburban living rooms into spaces where quick-witted banter and romantic attraction can flourish, and where big-personality faculty members, played by agile performers like Tony Hale (“Veep”) and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”), are on hand to steal a scene or two.
But if this adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s young-adult novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” feels a long way from the raw intensity of an LGBTQ-themed art-house drama like “Call Me by Your Name” or “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” it nonetheless accomplishes its own, not-insignificant form of progress. There may be little in this movie that you haven’t seen before, but the perspective through which you’re seeing it can make all the difference.
By his own admission, Simon Spier (an effortlessly appealing Nick Robinson) is an ordinary, well-adjusted kid in most respects. He’s charming, sensitive and outgoing, with normal-guy good looks, an endearing, borderline-annoying family and a close-knit circle of friends. But from the moment we see him checking out the dude with the leaf blower across the street, we know something that the rest of the world doesn’t, and that Simon, not unlike many kids his age, has trouble articulating.
But Simon soon learns he’s not alone. Someone using the online alias “Blue” posts a note on a local message board, announcing that he’s gay and no one knows it. Emailing Blue using a private account and a fake identity of his own (“Jacques”), Simon reveals that he’s gay too, occasioning the first of several zippy confessional sequences that open a window into his lonely world. (The funniest: a sly “what if?” montage in which Simon’s friends have to come out as heterosexual to their parents.)
While we don’t see Blue’s face behind the computer screen — or, rather, we see several possible faces, as Simon keeps adjusting his fantasy scenario based on new information — there’s a palpable sense of empathy and relief flowing between the young men as they pour out their innermost thoughts and desires. Before long the movie has become not just a tale of burgeoning friendship but also a 21st century epistolary romance between two equally secret admirers.
It is also, most cleverly and artificially, a detective story, one in which the sleuth is trying to figure out someone else’s secret while also hiding his own. The busy complications of teenage romance take a noirish turn when the designated class irritant, Martin (Logan Miller), stumbles on Simon’s secret emails and begins blackmailing him, hoping to land a date with his friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Simon, terrified of exposure, goes along with the ruse, manipulating Abby and their other close buddies, Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), into a heady state of emotional confusion.
There’s a tidy air of contrivance to these proceedings that feels unsurprising coming from the director Greg Berlanti, well known for his work on television as a purveyor of teen angst, from “Dawson’s Creek” to the current “Riverdale.” (The writers are Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, whose joint credits include “This Is Us.”) But the fact that the story plays out like a mystery, replete with false leads, misread signals and other red herrings, also feels strangely intuitive. If Simon’s closeted existence is predicated on the art of emotional concealment, then “Love, Simon” finds a way to put that deception to work in dramatic terms.
En route to its delightful if touchingly awkward finale, the movie dispenses the sort of lessons that walk a fine line between insightful and didactic. Simon’s secret is thrust out into the open with a cruelty that Robinson’s performance registers with particular sensitivity. He’s forced into tough, necessary conversations with both his mother (Jennifer Garner), who’s sensitive and liberal-minded, and his father (Josh Duhamel), who’s just as lovable but not above cracking the odd homophobic joke. As the story is wise enough to acknowledge, no parent, however open-minded, is easy to approach with the truth.
On paper, then, “Love, Simon” might sound like an ungodly collection of big- and small-screen clichés. It hits fuzzy, familiar beats, treats its hero’s sexual awakening with kid gloves and reduces his first-love experience to a guessing game. In exchange for a sliver of your empathy too, it mines plenty of entertainment value from Simon’s acerbic, out-and-proud classmate Ethan (Clark Moore), effectively replacing the gay-friend routine with the even-gayer-friend routine.
It accomplishes, in short, what Hollywood has been doing with heterosexual romance for more than a century, nipping and tucking it into a glossy, palatable fiction laced with nuggets of emotional truth. And like the most irresistible standard-bearers of that tradition, it does so with an eagerness and calculation that I finally found hard to hold against it. That may not be the grandest public declaration of love, but like this movie, it will do.
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release