Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: ‘Love, Simon’ is a middling masterpiece

Ever since Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist cuddled on big screens across America, Hollywood has spoiled gay audiences to the point it’s tempting to forget generations of mistreatment, from the padlocks the industry put on the closets of leading actors, to the dearth of authentic gay themes and complex characters in mainstream films.

For many gay men, “Brokeback Mountain” was as spiritual as it was artistic, its affirmation of the same-sex experience amplified by its critical success. A few years later, with LGBT Americans wounded and distraught by the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, “Milk” was almost a big-screen séance, with Sean Penn channeling our fallen hero so convincingly that he would sweep the awards season as best actor, and our movement would roar with vengeance and victory.

The brilliance of “Moonlight” matched those earlier films, as did the devotion of its audience, who finally saw their emotions and existence reflected in mainstream art. It was likewise honored, and despite the mayhem of the Oscar ceremony, there was never any arguing the manifest claim a story about black gay love had for best picture of the year.

Regardless of these accomplishments, it still takes a movement for gay-themed stories to make it from art houses and the internet to multiplexes and mainstream audiences. Such momentum is building around “Love, Simon,” a teenage coming-out comedy that was filmed in Atlanta and has made $23.5 million in its first 10 days in theaters (spoilers ahead).

It was indeed a delightful story that navigated the gay imagination like a bubbly tour guide for straight visitors. Gay teens search for love while simultaneously trying to find “self,” and the film treated some of these unique-yet-universal obstacles with queer caprice.

“Love, Simon” is a much-appreciated modernization of the coming-out process, breaking from the societal and artistic narrative of a tormented, suicidal outcast that didn’t match the experience of plenty of gay adolescents, and will likely resonate even less with future generations of early-adjusted LGBT youth. Yet, it also revealed how popularity doesn’t protect a young gay person from angst as they try to understand themselves, and wonder whether their truth will poison the life they know and mostly love.

For all of these reasons, along with the overall lovability of the cast, “Love, Simon” was a wonderful artistic statement that brought me close to tears during several scenes; but, it was not always a good movie.

“I thought the writers nailed it during all of the poignant scenes, and the nuances of our anxiety,” I said to a friend afterward. “But some of those everyday, in-between scenes — the banter was lazy and the acting was —”

“But that’s the thing I love about it,” said my friend who loved everything about “Love, Simon,” and is planning repeat viewings. “It has that ‘basicness’ that all other romantic comedies have — those moments of cheap dialogue and shit that would never happen.”

It is possible for something to be both middling and a masterpiece, and “Love, Simon” is groundbreaking among teenage rom-coms, and potentially in mainstreaming LGBT-themed cinema. It extends the string of movies toward which gay audiences have felt a profound emotional connection, even if each scene and sentence weren’t as meticulous as in the earlier films (although it’s noteworthy that dialogue in both “Brokeback Mountain” and “Moonlight” was deliberately scarce, while the lines of “Milk” were mostly verbatim words of Harvey himself).

We’ve gotten used to movies that accurately spotlight gay stories receiving accolades, and “Love, Simon” is powerful enough for us to expect it to be recognized and rewarded. But it’s enough for me to have a gay love story snuggle up beside “Sixteen Candles” as movies that weren’t Oscar contenders, but simply coming-of-age classics.