Entertainment

His Great, and Gay, Love Story: What Took So Long?

Posted March 15, 2018 11:17 p.m. EDT

In the new teenage romantic comedy “Love, Simon,” the title character, played by Nick Robinson, proclaims: “I’m done living in a world where I don’t get to be who I am. I deserve a great love story.”

That he gets one could almost be considered revolutionary: With “Love, Simon,” which opened Friday, 20th Century Fox becomes the first major studio in recent memory to gamble on a movie anchored by a gay character. The result is a $17 million film that feels timely but raises the question: Why did it take so long?

Typically the gay character in a studio-backed teenage romance is the supportive best friend spouting quips and offering relationship or fashion advice. That is, unless he’s walking a darker path. An IMDB list of the best gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenage movies begins with “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), about two hustlers. Films closer to the tone of “Love, Simon,” like “Edge of Seventeen” (1998) or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), were released by boutique studios. Specialty divisions of major studios produced “Brokeback Mountain” and “Call Me by Your Name.” But the 17-year-old Simon Spier is reminiscent of characters played by Molly Ringwald in the 1980s heyday of teenage romances like “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink.”

“Love, Simon” is a romantic comedy and a coming-of-age story, and also a mystery as Simon tries to discover the identity of the online pen pal he has grown to love. It is based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young adult novel, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.”

Albertalli, who is also a clinical psychologist, based Simon on herself and her high school experiences. Her work with gay and lesbian children also gave her, she said, “a general sense of some of the issues that some kids in the community were grappling with.” But her true inspiration was the birth of her first son. “At the very least, whoever he turns out to be, if he needs this message from his mom, this book will be here.”

LGBTQ audiences want to see characters who reflect their lives and experiences. (Forgive the personal aside, but this is the type of movie I’ve been looking for since I was growing up — my first encounter was a small, tragic gay character in “Pump Up the Volume,” from 1990 — and I’m sure I’m not alone.) Albertalli made note of the website LGBTQ Reads, which suggests books for all ages, including the young adult fiction known as YA. “It’s really exciting seeing the conversations in YA that are happening around representation.”

For gay readers, one line in Albertalli’s novel is especially resonant. Simon thinks, “In reality, I’m not the leading guy. Maybe I’m the best friend,” and Albertalli said, “It was almost as if all these creative people read that line and they were like, ‘OK, Simon, let me prove you wrong.'”

One of those creative types is Greg Berlanti, the director of “Love, Simon.” An executive producer of many television shows starring DC Comics heroes, Berlanti remembered telling studio executives in his initial meetings with 20th Century Fox, “I think it’s so cool that you guys are committing to making a movie like this.” He also said, “I’m sort of surprised that one doesn’t already exist.”

Working on the film was an emotional experience for him. “It was filling a void I didn’t even know that I needed filled,” Berlanti said. “It was making me feel something that I couldn’t quite identify.”

With most romantic films, he explained, “you’re not always experiencing it totally viscerally because you’re having to imagine ‘if this character were gay.'” That extra effort isn’t needed for “Love, Simon.”

Like Berlanti, Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of GLAAD, a media-monitoring group, was also surprised that 20th Century Fox was producing a wide-release coming-out story. “Twenty percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ,” Ellis said. “Having a film available to them is a breakthrough.” This was quite important, she noted, after her group’s annual acceptance poll showed a decline in positive momentum. The 2017 online survey of 2,160 adults by the Harris Poll showed a drop, to 49 percent from 53 percent, in the number of non-LGBTQ adults who were “very” or “somewhat” comfortable with LGBTQ people across seven situations, compared with the 2016 poll.

“To be able to have this movie come out — for those that don’t identify as the norm — is really, really powerful and will do a whole lot of good,” Ellis said.

Like the Bechdel test, which examines how often female characters talk with each other about anything other than a man, GLAAD has the Vito Russo test for portrayals of gay characters. For a film to pass, it must have a lead LGBTQ character who is not solely defined by sexual orientation or gender identity and whose removal from the film would have a significant effect. “Love, Simon” would easily pass.

Studios seemingly learn a lesson annually. This year, “Black Panther” proved that a film rooted in black culture could do well overseas. In 2017, “Wonder Woman,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Beauty and the Beast” showed that female main characters could top the box office. Will “Love, Simon” make a similar case for movies about gay characters?

“The interest in this film is incredibly high,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior box office analyst at comScore. He noted that it was heavily discussed on social media and that its trailer had more than 19.7 million views on YouTube. “You don’t get 19 million views on something nobody cares about,” he said.

Berlanti is aware that the most important test facing “Love, Simon” is at the box office. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me this is the movie they wish they had when they were kids,” Berlanti said. “So it’s here now and we want those kids to get to see it. It really needs everyone to come out and show studios and show individuals that a film like this can be just as incredible as its counterpart with a straight protagonist.”