Teen rom-coms are nothing without happy endings. Remember Sam kissing Jake on her dining-room table in Sixteen Candles, or Cher and Josh embracing at Miss Geist’s wedding in Clueless? They’re iconic, romantic, and, well, heterosexual.
Recently, indie films like Call Me by Your Name have explored gay first love, but the biggest studios have largely ignored the experience even as television has been far more progressive when it comes to portraying homosexual teens (see: Glee, Ugly Betty). But that all changes on Friday, when 20th Century Fox releases the first major studio film featuring a gay teen lead. Love, Simon contains all the hallmarks of its hetero genre siblings and boasts a grand romantic gesture that’s exhilaratingly unique, because this time it’s between two guys. “It’s a movie that you almost don’t know is missing until you see it,” says Jurassic World‘s Nick Robinson, who plays the titular Simon. “It’s sort of like the void no one knew was there.”
Love, Simon also has the potential to change industry norms: Along with Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time, it’s part of a wave of films delivering heroes that break the mold for traditional studio productions. So could this be the beginning of a revolution? “I hope so,” says the film’s director, Greg Berlanti. “I can’t believe it’s 2018 and there hasn’t been a Love, Simon type of film — I hate being first. I look forward to there being much more representation in mainstream cinema.”
Adds producer Wyck Godfrey (The Fault in Our Stars): “What people used to think of as fringe culture, that’s not fringe — there’s a gazillion people out there going, ‘Where’s this story for me?’ The time has finally gotten here where it’s like, ‘Okay, we should be telling these stories.'”
Based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young-adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the movie centers on a typical teen with a seemingly perfect life: Simon has a great group of friends (13 Reasons Why‘s Katherine Langford costars as his BFF, Leah), loving parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel), and a gorgeous home (that breakfast nook!). But he’s struggling with being gay, until he meets someone online from his school who’s going through the same thing. An anonymous and adolescently exciting email correspondence between the two begins, but when that relationship is exposed too soon, drama ensues.
Despite the gay twist, Berlanti — who is out and married to soccer star Robbie Rogers — wanted Simon to feel reminiscent of the iconic John Hughes and Cameron Crowe films of his childhood. “The best stories are stories we mark our own lives by,” he says. “We grow up with them. You show them to your kids. They become part of your life.” Garner hopes people see it on date night. “It’s just a fun, great movie. For people that it has extra meaning for, I hope, hope, hope they grab onto that and wring what they can out of it. And I [hope] that gay men and women encourage their parents to see it.”
The opportunity for gay kids to see a movie like this can, in some ways, be traced back to Berlanti himself. The prolific producer of about two dozen series, including Brothers & Sisters, The Mysteries of Laura, Arrow, The Flash, and Riverdale, threatened to quit his job as showrunner on Dawson’s Creek when WB execs balked at the idea of two male teenagers kissing on screen. (Berlanti ultimately got his Creek kiss in 2000 — and later that year released The Broken Hearts Club, the first major studio movie about a group of gay friends since 1970’s The Boys in the Band.) He had no such interference from the powers that be when it came to making Simon, he says. “They were hands-on, in the best way possible. It was mostly straight people who were working on it, who were doing it because they really believed a movie like this deserved to be made.”
Godfrey agrees the narrative should resonate with everyone. “We never thought of it as a story only gay people could enjoy, because at that age you’re feeling like you’re hiding so much of who you are to the world. The most terrifying thing is being open about who you are.”
To make sure the film worked with audiences outside of the biggest metropolitan areas, the studio tested the film in Kansas City, Kan. “We got to [the climax], and the entire theater broke out into applause,” says Godfrey, recalling that Berlanti had tears in his eyes.
The empowering message of Simon has also registered for its cast in surprising ways. Shortly after Robinson finished shooting the film, his brother announced on social media that he was gay. “It’s actually been a really cool experience talking with him about it, and it gives the film a whole new meaning, for sure,” the actor says.
Keiynan Lonsdale, who plays one of Simon’s classmates, also came out as bisexual last year, explaining that the movie gave him the courage he needed to do so. “I wasn’t open publicly at the time I was even filming the movie,” says the 26-year-old actor. “I realized I was still having anxiety about my sexuality on a film set with a gay director about a gay love story. That made me sad during the process of it because I was like, ‘What am I doing?'”
Berlanti hopes the movie empowers others in the same way. “There’s the great Harvey Milk quote which is ‘Every gay person must come out.’ It also happens to be the journey of the movie and why, even today, it’s still tricky and can feel like a lonely process. But part of doing that is saying, ‘This is who I am,’ and I think it leads to a better life.” How’s that for a happy ending?