It gets better, the saying and the TV public service announcement campaign told us. Years ago.
And it has. The occasional giant step backward notwithstanding, we’re a long way from “The Hangover” (2009) and its “Paging Dr. Faggot” jokes.
Et tu, Bradley?
“Coming out?” Still a rite of passage. Still brave. Still a big deal on a personal level, and there are still families that might not “get” the whole tolerance thing. But the tide of history turned a decade ago and the speed of change and acceptance in the culture has been, by any measure, breathtaking.
“Love, Simon” is a gay coming-of-age comedy that seems from another era. It’s a “coming out” romance” that tries too hard — much too hard, and a dated “edgy” subject comedy with may too much of the edge rubbed off.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s adorable 2015 novel, it’s a film that’s going to speak to kids going through this watershed moment now. But anybody who’s been around for a few decades and maybe seen decades of queer cinema that came before it can be excused (Let’s hope) for shrugging and saying, “Yeah, and?”
It traffics in gay stereotypes and swims in a sea of sweeter-than-sweet characters, none sweeter that its title character.
Simon, played with a sort of guarded reticence by Nick Robinson of “The Kings of Summer,” narrates that “I’m just like you.” He uses words like “normal” in a defensive way that seems straight out of 1999.
Maybe it’s his dumpy hoodie/t-shirt wardrobe, or his carefully chosen-for-public-consumption classic rock playlist (The Kinks), but his family doesn’t know, his friends don’t know. Even though we do. Know.
There’s a cute moment or two when he tries out his gaydar and tries to flirt.
It takes an anonymous blog post from a classmate in the same circumstances to bring Simon closer to accepting who he is and putting that out there for all to see. His email pen pal “Blue” becomes his gay confesssor, the student Simon says everything he feels, at 17, and how much he wants to feel love, to have his “great romance” (teen edition).
Simon still doesn’t think it “fair that only gays have to ‘come out.'” That sets up the dorky “Mom, Dad, I’m heterosexual” gag montage that you’ve seen in the film’s trailer.
Those friends include the requisite slightly-chunky female BFF (Katherine Langford), the hunky jock (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and the cooler-than-cool bi-racial cutie (Alexandra Shipp) Simon’s in “Cabaret” with. Yeah, Simon’s in theater. Noooo, nobody knows.
Jennifer Garner plays his indulgent, bubbly psychotherapist mom with great empathy, and Josh Duhamel’s the ex-jock dad who makes “one man ‘pride parade'” and “fruity” cracks — about other people, not his own kid. Because he doesn’t know.
The lack of bite in those cutting remarks make you think “Dad doesn’t mean it.” That’s a function of the performance and pretty much the way they entire picture plays.
There are homophobes at school, yes. They’re more than offset by the gushing, over-the-top “Your Pal” version of the vice principal (Tony Hale, pulling out all the stops, and then some) and the sassy, “I was an extra in ‘Lion King,’ and this is where I am” lesbian drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell).
A few funny lines ensue, but veteran TV director Greg Berlanti has his cast play them sitcom broad. The film’s flatness creeps into the promisingly unpolished “Cabaret” the kids are performing, and a dream sequence where Simon & Classmates dance to Whitney Houston.
There are a series of fantasy sequences where Simon imagines his gay online friend as this or that kid from school, a Halloween party with Simon and BFF Leah (Langford) dressed as John and Yoko, and we figure out this Georgia high school has parents hip enough to not mind swearing in front of the kids and not strict enough to care when those kids come home from that party drunk. Coed sleepovers at 17? Sure.
And that’s the chief shortcoming of “Love, Simon.” Whatever value it might have to scared, sexually-conflicted kids, mainstreaming tolerance and emphasizing “I’m just like you,” all that feels like old news in the movie.
When every space is a “safe space,” when bullies are promptly dealt with via public cussing-out (by a teacher) and punishment from the “cool” vice principal, when the villain of the piece is just a dork on the jerk end of the nerd spectrum (Logan Miller), where’s the conflict?
Like “Wrinkle in Time,” it’s more a movie one “supports” rather than really enjoys. Unless of course you’re in the less worldly audience for whom it’s truly intended. The word that best fits it as a comedy, a romance and a coming-of-age story is “innocuous.” It’s just that at this point in history, after Neil Patrick Harris, after Tammy Baldwin, after Ellen and “Glee!,” “innocuous” doesn’t feel like enough.
It’s too easy.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Running time: 1:49