"Love, Simon" -- ★ ★ ★
Perfectly timed to capitalize on the 90th Academy Awards show's campaign promoting inclusion and acceptance, the endearingly charming romance "Love, Simon" puts us in the sneakers of a lovably awkward teenage high school student coming to terms with his burgeoning sexual identity.
"My name's Simon," Simon says in one of many direct-address voice-overs. "I'm just like you. Except that I have one huge ... secret: Nobody knows I'm gay."
Normally, such blunt voice-overs serve as easy shortcuts for impatient screenwriters anxious to get through expository information. Here, the screenplay comes from Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger from the acclaimed NBC series "This Is Us" and is based on Becky Albertalli's novel.
So these voice-overs efficiently and instantly establish an empathetic connection between us and Simon. Especially important is this key phrase: "I'm just like you."
A winningly unaffected actor named Nick Robinson plays Simon as a socially insecure, doing-the-best-he-can Everyteen. Northwestern University grad Greg Berlanti, also a TV writer and producer, directs with sincerity and flair, having launched his film directing career with "The Broken Hearts Club." (Watch how the movie uses Simon's visits to a coffee shop drive-through to comment on his changing state of mind.)
In light of gay-themed dramas such as "Brokeback Mountain" in which homosexuals become objects of fear and derision or targets of unspeakable brutality, "Love, Simon" feels like a romantic fantasy.
Simon lives in a relatively stable, gosh-darn-it, solid moral world with fearlessly supportive parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel), a principled high school principal, teachers willing to hand bullies their heads on a lunch plate, and students who actually apologize when they violate the Golden Rule.
Then, there's Worth, the effusively dramatic vice principal (a hilarious Tony Hale) keeping tabs on student social life.
The simple plot revolves around Simon's anxiety over when and how to inform his parents that he's gay.
That becomes complicated, and potentially compromised, when Simon strikes up an online conversation with another teenager who expresses his confusion and fear over being a closeted gay.
The mystery teen goes by the name Blue. Simon adopts the pseudonym Jacques to exchange candid confessions with his new friend, who attends the same high school.
Who can this mysterious Blue, whom Simon has fallen for sight unseen, be?
Different male classmates cleverly narrate Blue's missives depending on who Simon suspects might be the object of his romantic fascination.
The unthinkable occurs when Simon fails to close his Gmail account on a library computer. An abrasive, self-centered student named Martin (Logan Miller) reads the exchanges, then uses them to blackmail Simon into setting him up on a date with his seemingly unattainable friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp).
Simon is hardly the perfect hero. He protects his secret even as he inflicts damage on his friendships with Leah (Katherine Langford), who has crushed on Simon for many years, plus his best pal Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who's crushed on Abby since she transferred to their school.
"Love, Simon" presents its main character in such sympathetic light that less-accepting viewers might accuse it of trying to "normalize" alternate sexual preferences.
Actually, this movie simply refuses to "normalize" bigotry, hatred and xenophobia. And does it with a kind, understanding and forgiving heart.
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Starring: Nick Robinson, Logan Miller, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel
Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Other: A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13 for adult subject matter. 109 minutes