Love, Simon? Don’t Love, Simon?: A Debate on the Little Gay Movie That Could

Love, Simon. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Love, Simon, the first major studio film to receive a wide release while centering on a gay teen coming out and navigating romance, is already polarizing queer audiences. While some — including most critics — are swept away by what they see as a John Hughes-ian coming-of-age romantic comedy-drama, others are firmly in the detractor camp, saying its portrayal of queer characters of color is cursory at best. Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang, two strongly opinionated queers and hosts of Las Culturistas, put their friendship on the line yet again in order to debate the merits of the Greg Berlanti–directed flick, and settle once and for all whether or not we should love Love, Simon.

Matt: Okay, Bowen, here’s my thing. I’m a romantic and an impressionable boy who loves any movie that really prioritizes its arena-pop soundtrack (thank you, Jack Antonoff! Love you bish!), but I’m also aware that this movie was designed specifically to destroy me emotionally and I sort of understand those who feel alienated by it. But so many elements of this film rang true for me. The extremely uncomfortable situation of having to sit on the couch next to your parents while they made jokes about gay characters on television? Been there. Having to approach your dad while he’s working outside in a down vest over flannel so he can cry about having “missed it”? That was Josh Duhamel doing Rich Rogers drag, and he deserves an Oscar for it (so does the costume designer. I mean, Jesus Christ). I couldn’t really relate to the high school performing Cabaret as the spring musical because my superintendent was a conservative monster who wouldn’t let us do Grease because of the “inappropriate content,” but I could really feel this school and the thickness of Simon’s tough and relatable situation. I should also just quickly add that my vastly white high school was able to perform both The Wiz and The King and I, because both of those were appropriate, apparently. Shit’s fucked up! Bowen, I give you the floor to discuss this, an LGBT John Hughes movie just for us!

Bowen: Shit’s definitely fucked up, especially if Josh Duhamel is playing the Everydad. Look, I’m not saying people shouldn’t enjoy aggressively banal queer content like this, because even Meghan Trainor should be played at bear bars. But to call Love, Simon a modernly gay John Hughes movie is blasphemous, even though I still haven’t forgiven him for Long Duk Dong. Simon is a perfectly likable cipher, but the movie goes to great lengths to give him specificity and then wildly fails. He loves Radiohead and that’s it. He has Kid A on vinyl! He has “April 4 - Radiohead” scrawled on his chalkboard wall! I literally thought “I bet he has an Elliott Smith poster,” before clocking his Elliott Smith poster two scenes later. To quote an old John Early joke, “I wasted so much time in high school trying to like Radiohead instead of learning to use my butt for sex.” There are no contours to Simon’s queerness, and he thinks dancing to Whitney Houston with color-blocked outfits is too gay. I’m cracked that y’all are relating to this person with no there there.

Matt: Bowen, some gay high-schoolers like rock music! Case in point: me! I saw Ashlee Simpson in concert twice in high school! Let us love rock! In the words of Jennifer Garner, Bowen, “you deserve everything you want,” including a perfect movie that catered very specifically to your own musical tastes (centered on whatever bleach-blonde pop chanteuse Spotify is featuring this week), but Simon is different! It will be years before he realizes the power Whitney has over him. Years before he realizes that choreographed dancing in a group of other youths in different colored shirts is something we all go through. Years before he is interesting, at all.

But that’s another element that I think this movie got right: When you’re gay in high school, you have no chance of being yourself. You pretend to like shitty masc things (sorry, gents of Radiohead). You push the shit that’s “too gay” out of the realm of possibility, even if you enjoy those things deep down inside. Simon comes a long way throughout this film, and even goes on a Ferris wheel at the end. That’s the gayest amusement park ride. Let him find himself! No, but did you like Jennifer Garner?

Bowen: I did love her. She gave the Stuhlbarg monologue from Call Me by Your Name but like, the Kidz Bop version. Iconic!

Matt: It’s true. Possible nomination here! Start the campaign! Her best performance since she last played the Mom in a Movie, like, 15 minutes ago.

Bowen: But wait, can we talk about that bullshit montage of Simon walking down the hall after emailing with Blue about their mutual Jon Snow crush? He sees misshapen guy after misshapen guy wearing Game of Thrones T-shirts and recoils in disgust that any of them might be his anonymous beau, and that’s when the film lost me. You know Simon is five years away from saying “No fats, no femmes, no well-groomed black twinks.” Which brings me to Ethan.

Matt: Don’t start on this “he should have been the star of the movie” kick, please.

Bowen: He should have been! Give me a quippy dramedy where he and his mom bond over eyewear.

Matt: If there was a supporting character who needs a spinoff here, it’s Natasha Rothwell’s drama teacher because, slay. I liked Ethan and I think the movie did him a little dirty by not allowing him a response to Simon’s tone-deaf “bullying didn’t happen at this school before I came out” nonsense, but we will have that character’s movie. We’re not going to cancel Love, Simon because Ethan wasn’t the star of it. Give me a break. He was in it and featured heavily! Also, I’m going to be brave right now: saying Simon didn’t deserve this movie is White Gay Erasure!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Just because our parents get us cars doesn’t mean we don’t cry! It doesn’t mean we do not struggle! We want to fuck boys too! (Tell them I’m kidding.)

Bowen: He’s kidding, everyone. The only real White Gay Erasure is White-on-White Gay Erasure, like when Sam Smith says he’s the first gay man to win an Oscar and doesn’t know who Howard Ashman is. There’s this response that Love, Simon is manna from the queer cinema gods and that all the mediocre gay coming-of-age films of yore never existed because this one’s a wide release. And so what if it’s commercially viable? I’m not gonna be gagged at Pride just because Halliburton has a float.

Matt: I definitely feel how the movie’s opening line of “I’m just like you” can induce an eye roll, as it comes from an obviously super-privileged kid who lives in that beautiful house with those beautiful parents and has a beautifully well-adjusted diverse group of friends at a school where, again, they’re liberal enough to perform Cabaret (I’m sorry, but I can’t get over that). But I think there is much more to celebrate here than to gripe about. I don’t know where you’re seeing anyone call this cinema. I think it’s pretty wonderfully basic. It’s vanilla and accessible and maybe that’s exactly what it needed to be. No one’s pretending this is Call Me by Your Name. I didn’t need it to be. To be honest, I liked this more! I felt seen by it. They get iced coffee from a drive-thru and I get that. I don’t fuck peaches and I certainly have never been to Italy. I thank this movie for speaking to me, the Basic Gay, and letting me picture myself kissing the cute boy on top of the Ferris wheel. Speaking of, he should have been the star. Cute!

Bowen: Ferris wheels are inherently straight, by the way. The engineering involved is reserved for heterosexual losers only. (Tell them I’m kidding.)

Matt: He’s kidding, everyone. I would posit that Ferris wheels actually tell a queer narrative: ups and downs, there is one in Love, Simon, they really “light up” at night, etc.

Bowen: Gorgeous. We can agree on that, and how Natasha Rothwell deserves a GLAAD Lifetime Achievement Award for her turn in this piece of cinema.

Matt: Okay, fine, it is cinema, but only because you named it as such! And, in all seriousness, we deserve more movies that are at least this good and this representative of LGBT folks. My audience cheered when they kissed at the end and that made the scared gay kid in me really happy. So, more of this, please! Who knows? Maybe we can get to a place where we even play these characters! No shade to Nick Robinson, who is a lovely straight gay teen. But that would be a cool opportunity!

Bowen: Not me. I only book brooding, hardened hetero roles and I carry a lot of guilt around that.

Matt: Well, that’s all for us. If you didn’t see this movie over opening weekend, that’s worse than not voting. Bye!

Love, Simon? Don’t Love, Simon?: A Debate