This week marks a milestone at the movies. “Love, Simon,” which opens Friday, is the first romantic comedy about a gay teenager ever to be released across the country — and it’s resonating in Utah’s LGBTQ community.
“It was really amazing to see a love story that I can relate to. And to watch a character that I share so much with in my life’s story,” said 23-year-old Conner Leavitt of Orem, who attended one of the preview screenings last weekend. “I wish there had been a movie like it when I was a teenager!”
Leavitt was raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Moses Lake, Wash., and came out to his parents when he was 21, “a couple of months after my mission.” He came out on Facebook this past June, and said he has no regrets.
Except that he wishes he’d done it when he was still in high school. “I feel like I missed out on so many experiences, but I was too afraid,” Leavitt said.
That’s the same position the title character in “Love, Simon” finds himself experiencing. The movie, which opens nationally on Friday in 2,400 theaters, is about 17-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), who hasn’t figured out how to tell his family or his friends that he’s gay — and he’s fallen for an anonymous classmate he met online. And it’s about love and acceptance and coming of age.
“Love, Simon” is being launched with a big advertising campaign, a lot of buzz and mainstream critical approval. (As of this writing, it’s tracking at 88 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.)
But Time magazine critic Daniel D’Addario stirred up controversy in a basically positive review — headlined, “Love, Simon is a groundbreaking gay movie. But do today’s teens actually need it?” He wrote, “Kids like Simon, in 2018, already have a good shot of fitting in. They don’t need this movie. … ‘Love, Simon’ feels like a film responding to an entirely different culture, like one in which gay marriage was never legalized. That decision both acknowledged that equality for gays had won the day and opened the door for far more interesting and challenging fights.”
There was an immediate backlash on social media.
While D’Addario believes the movie “simply feels like looking back in time,” that is not the experience for several young members of the LGBTQ community in Utah who saw the previews of “Love, Simon.”
The notion that marriage equality ended the need for movies like this came as news to them, and they questioned D’Addario’s understanding of what it’s like to be young and queer in a place like Utah.
“It’s easy to get in a bubble and think that your experience is everyone’s experience, but it’s not,” said 15-year-old Fiona Trinite. “I have so many friends that are, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t come out ’til last month.’ And they’re [high school] seniors! And I just think — oh my gosh! That’s seriously the same experience” as in “Love, Simon.”
For Utahns, coming out is rarely easy.
“Well, I’m a queer person,” said 21-year-old Savy Stay of Orem. “I’m nonbinary and I’ve come out multiple times with different responses. It’s definitely not easy. Even if you know that people are probably going to be OK, it’s very hard.”
“Love, Simon” speaks to that experience.
“It definitely did,” Stay said. “It was very relatable. And it’s something I’m not sure people in this community know about. Which is why I’m glad and happy we have this movie.”
Leavitt agreed that coming out is “scary, especially in a conservative community. Coming out is definitely easier than it has been in previous decades, but it’s not easy.... My parents were amazing, but many friends that I grew up with were not.”
Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams agreed with the value of a film like “Love, Simon.”
“Positive media portrayals send a message to LGBTQ youth that they are not alone and there is a great future waiting for them,” he said.
For Trinite, when you see someone you can relate to on TV or in the movies, “you don’t feel like an outsider. You feel like, ‘Oh, OK. I’ve been through this.’”
Utahns who saw the film said they don’t see the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage as an indication that the fight for acceptance and equality is over.
“The gay rights movement was never just about only marriage,” Trinite said. “It’s about everything. It’s about representation. It’s about acceptance. It’s about tolerance. And marriage equality isn’t going to fix everything. There’s still going to be discrimination or fear that you’re not normal. And this movie is great because it basically tells you — you are normal. And it’s not about marriage, it’s just a little teen rom-com.”
And while there is a seemingly endless supply of romantic comedies about straight teens, “Love, Simon” is the first such film young Utahns may see at their local theaters.
“Do we ever ask if we still need straight rom-coms because hetero people can all get married?” Williams asked.
By the way, the only gay-themed movie ever to get a wider release in the U.S. was “In & Out” in 2,452 theaters, and that was 21 years ago.
“Most queer movies are rated R or are hard to find,” Stay said. “And this is going to be in theaters nearly everywhere.”
In part because it’s a mainstream, PG-13 movie.
“Often when gay themes are discussed in film, they are oversexualized, but this film shows a teen romance as innocent as any other teen romantic movie,” said Leavitt.
“...I’m so happy for the young members of the LGBTQ community that will be able to see that they can have a happy, normal life,” he said. “They will see that life really does get better and that living true to yourself is always the best way to live.”
As for the movie itself, it was all thumbs up for “Love, Simon.”
“It was amazing,” Stay said. “I’ll definitely watch it again.”
“I loved it,” said Leavitt.
“It was fantastic,” said Trinite. “It was maybe one of my favorite movies, ever.”