Love, Simon, a romantic comedy-drama set in high school and featuring gay students coming to terms with their sexual identity, is not your typical rom-com. As the marketing campaign tells us, everyone deserves a great love story, and this is 17-year old Simon's as he navigates coming out to friends and family and discovers his first love. The film directed by Greg Berlanti is based on the YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.
Read my original review here, then come back. I'll wait.
I recently watched this gut-wrenching, gay-friendly film again, this time with students from a local high school's Gay/Straight Alliance. Afterwards I asked them some questions. Later, I had an opportunity to interview the writer Becky Albertalli. Here are my questions for students and writer.
First, the students.
Any concerns about a straight actor Nick Robinson playing a gay student? Why not cast an openly gay actor in this significant mainstream romantic-comedy gay role?
Gays have been playing straight roles all the time, without recognition, so it’s OK for a straight actor to play gay. Why not? Nick Robinson as Simon did not come across as stereotypical or cliched, but played him simply as Simon. It’s no longer considered “brave” or seen as career-ending for a straight actor to play a gay role. Robinson was chosen because he played the part best, not because he was the best gay available or best straight available. It’s doubtful gay actors would be happy were they told they could only play gay characters, nor would straight actors be happy if they were told they could only play straight characters. If Nick Robinson did not play a believable gay man, that would be a criticism on his talent, or lack of, and not his sexuality. Good actors become someone they are not, regardless of orientation.
What about the high school's cellphone-confiscating principal and expletive-blurting drama teacher?
Absolutely not. Most teachers and principals no longer confiscate cell phones at our school. Much of that stopped after phones were taken, then lost or stolen, and teachers had to reimburse the students. Students can be written up and given reprimand for violating the no-phones rule, but phones are usually no longer confiscated. As for the drama teacher, the job would be on the line if a real teacher said those things to students — yeah, they’re funny, and yeah, she puts the homophobes in their place — but still, her comments cross the line into unprofessional, job-ending behavior.
What about the smartphone apps like Yik Yak or After School where students can post any and all comments, anonymously? Secret crushes, deepest anxieties, vulgar comments, criminal intent can all be posted, without adult interference. That's how Simon and Blue first meet, and it's how Martin is able to turn the system against Simon. Are such apps used widely at your school? Are there any restrictions?
Along with Instagram and Tumblr, most of us use SnapChat. There's not really any school-operated website. It’s mostly for announcements or gossip, FaceTime connections, but nothing specifically school-sponsored. Kids in the book and movie are constantly on Tumblr.
Is the character Martin, the well-meaning but relentless blackmailer, punished at all? After all, Martin co-opts Simon’s own choosing as to when and to whom he wants to come out. Martin’s school-wide Tumblr posting forces Simon out before the entire school. Does Martin have any comeuppance?
Nowhere near enough! What happened to our anti-bullying stance? He comes across in the movie as cute, just a little misguided, that’s all. But what he does is grossly invasive, malicious, manipulative, criminal even. Why doesn’t he get suspended? Other public homophobic bullying and trans-shaming in the movie get dealt with. Why does Martin just go on going on, being his creepy, nerdy, dangerous self? In the book, we get more of a back story of Martin and why he did what he did to Simon, but in the movie, Martin never fully takes the blame for his behavior.
In the book, the drama club is presenting the musical Oliver!, but in the film, the production is Cabaret? Really?!?
Our school would never do Cabaret. It’s just too dark, edgy, all about Nazis in pre-war Berlin at an underground sex club hosted by an androgynous emcee. Seems there would have to be so much censoring of the dialogue and action, so why bother? I think lots of people in the community would be upset by it. But I understand why it was done in movie, guess it's a lot more exciting than Oliver! And it was a chance to underline Simon's own sexual upheaval by having the drama group do Cabaret, after all, a musical based on a Christopher Isherwood book about his experiences as a gay man in Berlin. Looks gritty and flashy in a movie, but probably not the best choice for a real high school musical production.
The film presents a sequence where the national anthem at the homecoming football game is interrupted by someone who grabs the mic to make a grandstanding announcement to the audience in a “go big or go home” effort to get a potential girlfriend’s attention. Is this real or just movie fantasy?
No. Never. In today’s political climate with the national anthem and people’s responses at the center of our political discussion, any such interruption would not be tolerated. Can’t believe the principal thought it was cute. Can’t believe security didn’t intervene. And you can bet that any student in a mascot uniform running on field and grabbing the mic, then walking toward the audience, even in a seemingly non-threatening appeal to a would-be girlfriend, would be stopped immediately.
There’s a scene set in a Waffle House where the students stand up on their chairs and make big, loud, and profane announcements to all the other customers in the restaurant. Is this real? Have you really ever done anything like this in a Waffle House?
Overall, what was your take on the film and the way it depicts Simon's dilemma, his fear of coming out to his friends and family, and the various ways you are made to wonder just who the identify of his secret crush is until the very end of the movie? Would you see this as a Friday night date-night movie? No super-heroes, no blood and gore, no vampires or zombies or exploding cars, just high schoolers trying to find their way in the world, and oh yeah, by the way, a significant, first-time ever depiction in a mainstream movie of a high school gay relationship.
Really, really liked it. Yes, I think it's a movie for straight people too. Maybe especially for straight people. Thought it was serious and funny in the right mixture. Thought it was realistic in terms of Simon's turmoil and fear about losing his friends and family. Lot to be said here about hidden identity, cyberbullying, social media. The high school is a bit perfect, too upper middle class, no scruffy students, no real conflict. Even the homophobes come across more stupid and goofy than bad and mean. Maybe his parents were just too cool too about it all. I wish. I liked the way the movie kept us guessing about just who the secret crush is. Every time we were made to believe it was X or Y or Z, that's the one I wanted it to be, but they they held the surprise to the very end. I liked the choice. Glad he wasn't alone on the Ferris Wheel. Yeah, I think any high school student would find the movie entertaining, even if the love interest is two gay guys.
I’m to spend some phone time with Becky Albertalli, writer of the original book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. What question would you like me to ask her?
As a straight woman, how did you prepare to write a role like Simon’s from a gay male perspective?
Becky Albertalli is the author of William C. Morris Award winner and National Book Award longlist title, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (now a major motion picture, Love, Simon); the acclaimed The Upside of Unrequited; and the upcoming What If It’s Us (co-written with Adam Silvera). Becky lives with her family in Atlanta. We talked by phone while she was in Miami on a tour promoting the film.
As a straight woman, how did you prepare to write a role like Simon’s from a gay male perspective?
This is a very important question, and I understand why students in a Gay/Straight Alliance might ask it. Increasingly, communities do want someone from within that community to tell their own stories. Maybe if I knew then what I know now — I began this book in 2013, and it was published in 2015, and now it's 5 years later than when I began writing — as I see the increasing importance of outsiders not co-opting a story, maybe I wouldn't have written this particular story. But I did approach the development of the novel twofold: One, I let the book and character evolve very organically. I let Simon find his own way as I wrote his story down. Simon is so much like me — so much of me is in Simon, and so much of Simon is in me — so that his voice is my voice. I really believe that it’s Simon writing his own story. Two, at the time I was writing it, I was a new mom, very focused on children and their development, but also continued my career as a clinical psychologist. I was very involved with LGBT teens. So I wanted to be really, really careful to get it right. But Simon is, of course, not based on any of my clients. That would be totally unethical. Simon’s story is Simon’s story. But certainly my clinical work [she also works with gender non-conforming children] offered me much insight and awareness as to just what LGBT kids go through. So I did clinical research at the front end, and at the back end, after the book was written, a lot of gay men read the multiple drafts to be sure I was on the mark.
Were you surprised by the critical reception of book and film?
It really was a word-of-mouth book. Never made the bestseller lists, yet there’s been groundswell of positive response. Having Greg Berlanti as the director really infused it with authenticity too. As a young gay man, he’s said that he wished he’d had a book like this when he was growing up. People ask me if it’s hard to give up control of my story when it becomes a film with a screenplay written by someone else [Elizabeth Berger, Isaac Aptaker]. Not really. They made the conversion to film a beautiful experience. I was a consultant, more of a cheerleader, but did not write any of the script. I just loved watching them turn Simon’s story into film. I couldn't be happier with Nick Robinson as Simon Spier. Nick's portrayal is perfect.
I often prefer the book over the movie, so I'm alert for changes when the book becomes a screenplay. The book is tougher on Martin and his cyber-harassing than in the film. We seem to have more back stories of the other characters (Abby, Nick, Leah, Cal, Bram, etc) in the book than the movie. And there’s that curious change from the book’s Oliver! to the film’s Cabaret. What’s that all about? Was Cabaret just more photogenic and edgy than Oliver!?
Well, we have a two-hour film so they have to go for highlights to compress it down. You should know that the audio book version is complete and lengthy, nothing left out. Actually the early drafts of the screenplay had Oliver! as part of the film, but I believe they were never able finally to get the rights to Oliver! to include that as the high school musical production. That explains Cabaret. But I think it's a great choice, totally right. And I have a new book coming out in the spring, a sequel to Simon, called Leah and the Offbeats. Since Leah is the one main character in Love, Simon that we don’t know as much about, here’s the chance for her story to take center stage. Her life is considerably less privileged than the others. She loves to draw. She loves drumming. Even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends, not evenly her openly gay BFF, Simon.
What did you most want to achieve in writing this novel. How much was telling a good story and how much was message?
Certainly I want to tell a story, so that’s uppermost, but I always try to be conscious of messages. The YA community needs both. Really, the characters themselves control the unfolding plot and the underlying messages. I’ll repeat what I said earlier about organic growth of the novel writing experience. Simon himself grows and changes, and not just from coming out. He wonders why only gays have to come out, not straights, and asks why being straight is the default position. Then he realizes he has just as much default mode as a privileged white male, with all those assumptions, so he’s very surprised by who Blue turns out to be.
Have you seen Call Me By Your Name — a film where Elio, a young gay character exactly Simon’s age — also struggles to discover and claim his sexual identity? There's even Hollywood talk of a sequel. Maybe Simon and Elio should get together.
Yes I have seen that film, and Moonlight too. Both are wonderful, confirming films of young people coming of age, coming out, coming into their own.
Ben Wiley is a retired professor of film and literature at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.