Love, Simon hits theaters this weekend, and with the release comes a big milestone: It’s the first gay teen romance from a major studio. Ever.
It brings with it a wish fulfillment that lends the film an almost dreamy quality — most viewers will leave their theaters high on the fumes of representation, and glowing with the warm fuzzies of seeing a story long (very long) overdue. And while Love, Simon is a great, gay coming-of-age story, it’s also a great teen movie, a genre that can be either insanely enjoyable or wildly disappointing — all depending on how closely the movie in question follows the formula.
While no two teen movies are exactly alike (except Chasing Liberty and First Daughter, but that’s a debate for another time), there are certain elements that are always found in the best of the genre.
A take-notice soundtrack
Many movies feature background music for the sake of having background music. But teen movies often use the soundtrack as a narrative device all its own. You experience the songs as much as you experience … whatever the heck those crazy teens are doing in the film. The gold standard for this technique also happens to be our personal gold standard for all teen movies: Can’t Hardly Wait. There is no graduation party without “Paradise City,” there is no Amanda Beckett entrance without “6 Underground,” and without “Mandy” by Barry Manilow, the main character may as well be a stick figure.
Love, Simon — and director Greg Berlanti — clearly knew how high the musical stakes were, because the team recruited Jack Antonoff to serve as music producer. The result is a track list that perfectly embodies the exact mixture of mania and angst that is being a teenager, featuring songs from Bleachers, The 1975, and Troye Sivan.
Burgeoning — but not A-list — teen actors
Mean Girls is the perfect example here. Everything that Lindsay Lohan did after the film paled in comparison, and her portrayal wouldn’t have worked if she had become tabloid fodder before its release. Plus, discovering the talents of Amanda Seyfried and Rachel McAdams was an extra bonus. Love, Simon‘s young cast is also rife with potential. The movie’s star, Nick Robinson (Jurassic World), is being hailed as immensely appealing and likable in the titular role, Katherine Langford (who plays his best friend) has a solid career carved out thanks to 13 Reasons Why, Alexandra Shipp has five impressive upcoming projects, and Keiynan Lonsdale is quite possibly the cutest person we’ve ever seen.
Sure, a teen movie could tell their story without any wacky plot devices, but what fun would that be? Good teen flicks make no qualms about adopting their schtick. Think the pants in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — they help the story jump from Bridget to Carmen to Lena to Tibby. Or Olive’s (Emma Stone) livestreams in Easy A. Or the fact that 10 Things I Hate About You is really just The Taming of the Shrew.
Love, Simon uses emails — screen picture-in-picture has become a hallmark of highly commercial movies these days, but the correspondences between Simon and his anonymous crush Blue are so heartwarming we didn’t even care. Plus, that “come pick me up, kids are drinking” text Simon sends to his mom is pure gold.
Grown-ups may as well be furniture or background shrubbery as far as the actual plots go with this genre. They’re simply there because it would be weird if they weren’t. If the parents are completely average, no one will notice them, but if the adults in a teen film are funny, it feels like a treat we didn’t do anything to earn (and those are the best kind). Who saw Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson’s quips in Easy A coming? The same goes for Cady’s parents (played by Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn) in Mean Girls. Shout-out to Ladysmith Black Mambazo!
Extra bonus points are awarded when even the school staff members are self-deprecating geniuses. The overworked teacher/principal is an incredibly tired trope of pretty much anything we see onscreen, but some teen movies manage to break the mold. Tina Fey and Tim Meadows were certainly a memorable teacher-principal duo at North Shore High School in Mean Girls, but no one can hold a candle to the school guidance counselor Lisa Kudrow portrayed in Easy A.
A main character who is actually likable
The lead of every teen movie will inevitably have a narrative arc that involves them doing something that alienates their friends and family (cue the melancholic music!), but beneath it all they need some redeeming qualities that allow us to root for them. Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine in Edge of Seventeen could be a royal pain-in-the-you-know-what, but she was so witty and sympathetic that we barely noticed when she was being a total brat to everyone in her life. See also: Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson.
An envy-inducing bedroom
We’re not here for all those complaints about how Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw would never be able to afford her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan with barely a quarter of a job, or the arguments that no West Village apartment is the size of Monica and Rachel’s in Friends. We’re not trying to watch actors squeeze into realistic spaces — we want real estate escapism! The same goes for teen movies. Why would we want to relive the basement twin bed of our youth when we could get lost in the fantasies of the attic suite that we used to sketch in the margins of our notebooks?
All classic teen flicks have a bedroom to die for in common: Mia’s spiral staircase in Princess Diaries, Regina’s literal palace in Mean Girls, Cher’s computerized closet in Clueless, Cliff’s music studio in Bring It On. We can now add Simon to the list thanks to his dreamy sleeping nook and wonderfully unrealistic chalkboard wall.
Adult eye candy
Grown-ups need love too, okay? And if you’re going to cast Simon’s parents in Love, Simon, why not opt for a couple of attractive actors like Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel? Salt-and-pepper hair is sexy!
Well, duh. It’s not a teen movie unless the waterworks are a-flowin’. No spoilers, but if you’re going to see Love, Simon this weekend, you may want to bring some extra tissues with you.
A teen who doesn’t understand that they’re a teen
These pretentious boobs are both great comedic fodder and so painstakingly, gratingly accurate. Everyone knew someone during their teen years like Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson who was obnoxiously wise beyond their years (or, even worse, only thought they were wise beyond their years). We all had someone who read The People’s History of the United States and constantly reminded us of the war. If you didn’t, well, then that was you.
Okay, so this element isn’t an absolute necessity. But given her history with roles in both Juno and Love, Simon, it’s unclear why a director would make a teen movie without her.
Scene-stealing best friends
The stars of teen movies are only as strong as their supporting actors. Or, rather, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) is only as strong as Damian (Daniel Franzese) and Janice (Lizzy Caplan) in Mean Girls.
Disarmingly deep one-liners
You don’t come to teen movies to be shook by the dialogue, but sometimes teen flicks will knock you sideways with unexpected gravitas, like this scene from Lady Bird:
Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Lady Bird: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Lady Bird: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing, love and attention?