I walked out of Love, Simon a ball of emotions. I was happy, delighting in what was an unabashedly romantic story with a young gay protagonist. I was melancholy, mourning an adolescence I never had. I was both jealous and grateful, envying a generation of young queer people who had Simon’s story to celebrate, but at the same time relieved that they might not struggle as I had.
And I was proud and validated, because while Love, Simon was not my story, parts of my story were reflected in Simon’s journey.
It has been a couple of weeks since I watched the film and I have had time to process it. Seemingly, it is not a film that warrants processing. It adheres to the conventions of a well-worn genre. It is intended for the not-particularly discerning mainstream. But I nevertheless found it deeply affecting and have needed time to come to terms with why.
Growing up in the '90s in a conservative Catholic family in a conservative town in Australia’s most conservative state presented challenges for a young lad like me. You see, I wasn’t like the other boys; worryingly, it seemed I actually liked the other boys. And as time went on, I began to fear that this wasn’t a phase; that maybe I was stuck with this affliction, this "moral evil" and "objective disorder" that the Catholic Catechism on our bookshelf decried. Perhaps I was gay. A more terrifying prospect I could not have imagined. Unhelpfully, I had no one with whom I could talk about it. Catholics, as a general rule (and for all the talk of the golden rule) don’t collect sinners in their friendship groups. And I desperately needed to talk to a sinner.
The need for role models is a decidedly human trait and the search for them a decidedly human endeavor. As I was completely bereft of role models in my personal life, I did what many a young person does – I looked for them elsewhere, primarily in other people’s stories and usually in film.
However, the 1990s are not renowned for their sympathetic portrayal of queer characters or stories. And the few queer-themed movies that did make their way to Australia ranged from powerful but pretty grim dramas like Philadelphia and The Crying Game to farces like The Birdcage and comedies like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Germane to the majority of this mainstream queer fare was a sense of tragedy and doom. And the take-home message for this impressionable young guy? Gay equals either a long life of quiet desperation or a short life peppered with hostility and rejection and liberal doses of ABBA.
Teen-oriented films weren’t much better. Of the very few that actually featured gay themes or characters, you couldn’t call them nuanced. Christian in Clueless was more of a device than a fully formed character. The lesbian themes in Cruel Intentions were functional, and like so much else in that film designed to provoke and titillate (although I will be forever grateful for that scene with Ryan Phillippe).
Bring It On is a notable exception. Watching Les meet-cute with another male cheerleader was quietly affecting. It was the first glimpse of the kind of awkwardness I longed to experience. But aside from this little gay oasis, it was a pretty desolate landscape for a young guy looking for himself on the big screen.
Which brings me back to Love, Simon. Here for the first time is a major studio film that features as its protagonist a young gay man coming to terms with his sexuality and finding his place in the world. And there is the promise of a happily ever after for him.
What would the 16-year-old me have made of this film? How would I have reacted to seeing a teenager trying to work his way out of the closet? And the coming-out scenes with his family – would they have inspired me to take those first tentative steps out of my dark, glitterless closet? Might they have nudged me closer to a conversation with my family that would not take place for years?
In my clear-eyed moments, I know that these are questions are not fair. I know that mourning a hypothetical adolescence is folly. Yes, there is no doubt that Simon is the kind of role model I would have embraced as a confused, scared teen. But I also realize that one film would not have significantly altered my timeline or journey. There was more at play in my life than Simon could singularly bear on his shoulders.
But a boy can dream. I can dream of taking the 16-year-old me to a movie about a boy called Simon, a boy who is trying to come out to the world in his own time and on his own terms. I can watch him relate to Simon’s struggles and empathise with his fears. I can laugh with him at Simon’s awkwardness. I can smuggle him a tissue when Simon comes out to his family and they embrace him. I can share with him the elation of the final scenes.
And as the credits roll, I can turn to him and say, "See. It’s going to be OK."
DANIEL WELLS is an occasional writer and a frequenter of cinemas and concert halls. He is evangelical about film music as a legitimate art form and leads a generally jolly life in Canberra, Australia.