Film Web Review
Directed by Greg Berlanti
(20th Century Fox, 2018)
What’s not to love about Love, Simon?
The new Greg Berlanti–directed film, starring teen heartthrob Nick Robinson, covers all the bases necessary for a successful modern romantic comedy: attractive stars, a likeable main character you’re practically dared not to root for, and an engaging but not challenging plot. Like its teen romantic comedy predecessors Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink, it washes over you with pleasantry after pleasantry, obviously designed to have you to leaving the theater saying, “Ain’t life great?”
There’s nothing wrong with that. In this age of infinite cynicism, many of us sorely miss the feel-good mechanisms of a Frank Capra film, so an occasional happy ending is welcome indeed. But to the discerning Christian, some glaring questions pour cold but necessary water on the proceedings: is this a love story worth celebrating? Are the decisions the film extols the right ones? Can a biblically based worldview give a thumbs-up to the conclusions the story offers?
Isaiah’s warning about making error pretty comes to mind: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20).
In light of that, given that it centers on a teenage boy’s acceptance of his homosexuality, preceding his decision to announce it proudly and pursue a classmate he’s hoping will reciprocate his feelings, there’s little question that while aspects of the film can be appreciated, its assumptions and conclusions cannot.
The appreciable aspects deserve some mention. Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have written a screenplay (based upon the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens by Becky Albertalli) of great warmth and humor, offering the kind of dialogue and character sketches you hope for when you’ve got a yen for an enjoyable yarn. The family life surrounding Simon is as likeable as the boy himself, featuring two warmly supportive parents who give June and Ward Cleaver a run for their money in looks, affability, and parental interest. Simon’s high school life, while not overly sanitized, provides a strong endorsement of public education with glimpses of (mostly) tolerant and caring kids, long-term friendships, and enthusiastic and genuinely concerned teachers. Life in Simon’s world welcomes love and rewards kindness, so when the credits finally roll, one is left wishing for more of this sort of optimism, and less of the despair so often passing for realism in modern entertainment.
But the stamp of approval it offers for teen homosexuality makes what was once the highest taboo into what appears to be the highest honor. I couldn’t help but notice, for example, when Simon and his boyfriend exchange their first kiss, the difference between the audiences of 2018 and those of 1982, when I viewed the openly preachy, glossy pro-gay film Making Love. Controversial to the point of shocking for its time, it followed the coming-out experience of a young doctor who realizes he’s gay, enters an affair with another man, and eventually finds resolution in leaving his wife and declaring himself out and proud.
In 1982, when the male characters (portrayed by the popular actors Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean) were shown kissing passionately, the theater I was in erupted with full volume screams, groans, and profanities. Everyone, it seemed, was competing to prove how disgusted they were at the sight, how opposed they were to it, and how normal they were in objecting to it.
But when Simon finally got around to kissing his boyfriend in this flick, the distanced we’ve travelled over the decades was clearly tallied when the audience erupted into full-blown cheers, clapping, and verbal encouragements. Everyone, it seemed, was competing to prove how delighted they were at the sight, how supportive they were of it, and how normal they were in not objecting to it.
Ever the cynic, I entered the theater ready for propaganda, a message film demonizing conservatives and spouting platitudes about the normalcy of homosexuality and the bigotry of anyone disapproving of it. But apart from a scant reference to “super-religious” grandparents who can’t condone it, and the antics of a couple oafs mocking Simon in the cafeteria, little demonizing occurs, few sermons are preached, and the opportunity for aggressive propaganda seems all but ignored. Love, Simon just a story about a gay kid who realizes the need to come out, falls for someone online, and hopes (don’t we all?) for love and partnership.
That’s what troubles me the most about it. The film seems to say, “We all know that the only healthy thing for a gay kid to do is accept it, and the only decent thing for his family to do is celebrate it. Since that’s settled, let’s look at how one lovable gay teen finds romantic joy.” In other words, in the minds of the filmmakers (and clearly the audience at the screening I attended), there’s no need to convince anyone that gay’s OK. That battle’s been won, leaving the few dissenters in the company of Civil War Southerners who couldn’t accept Dixie’s defeat.
There’s no place given to God’s viewpoint of sex between men, since God is entirely absent from Love, Simon. And in His absence, a world like Simon’s is palatable, even inevitable.
I guess that’s why my wife and I left the theater grieving. Not over the movie’s wrong take on sexuality, nor its refusal to consider the alternative to celebrating what God forbids, nor even the audience’s applause for sin. We grieved because while Simon was granted his heart’s desire for the object of his love at the film’s end, he remains the object of a greater love, so he’s denied the relationship his heart will continue to yearn for, whether he realizes it or not.
When it’s all said and done, the modern-day message of Love, Simon ignores another ancient and more relevant than ever message. It still goes out, ignored but persistent, to him and the millions of other Simons the world over, offering an invitation to life eternal and joy unspeakable. It recognizes every yearning portrayed in this film, sees beyond the immediate desires to the ultimate needs, makes the terms clear, and extends its hand.
Then it ends with a heartfelt, perhaps even heartbroken signoff: Love, God. —Joe Dallas
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith