During a segment on screen representation that aired as part of this year's Academy Awards, comedian Kumail Nanjiani talked about what Hollywood's newfound (and frankly long overdue) commitment to diversity means for viewers used to the status quo. "Some of my favorite movies are by straight, white dudes, about straight white dudes," he said. "Now straight, white dudes can watch movies starring me, and you relate to that. It's not that hard. I've done it my whole life."
The idea of mentally translating the stories we see on screen to make them more relevant to our own experience is surely familiar to anyone who's spent a lifetime watching movies about straight, white, cisgender men, while themselves not fitting into any one (or any at all) of those categories.
I've already seen articles popping up asking whether the current generation of young people "need" a movie like "Love, Simon," an immensely likeable John Hughes-style teen comedy about a high school senior dealing with coming out and experiencing the pangs of first love. These articles argue that, being more open-minded about such things, today's youth see a gay teen love story as nothing special. But it's funny: no one asks if we "need" any of the literally hundreds of films released every year that are aimed at those same straight, white dudes.
The story "Love, Simon" tells isn't a new one. If you've attended ImageOut, Rochester's LGBT Film Festival, at any point over the course of its 26 year existence, you've seen innumerable coming out narratives very much like this one.
But this feels different.
Somehow "Love, Simon" is the first film getting a wide release from a major studio (20th Century Fox) to center on the story of a gay teen. Typically such films are limited to festivals or arthouse theaters, and I felt the difference each time I saw the film's trailer play before a major release during any of my trips to the multiplex over the past few months.
It happened when I heard Simon, the film's teen protagonist (played by the effortlessly charming Nick Robinson) utter the words "I'm gay" out loud. And this was in the film's marketing no less, an area where studios are most likely to play coy about any gay content, lest they scare away potential ticket buyers.
Queer characters in mainstream movies are often relegated to the role of best friend, offering quippy support to the film's true protagonist. Likely they never state their sexuality outright, forcing representation-starved viewers to read between the lines. But Simon gets to be the center of this story.
And sure, the film makes pains to stress how "normal" he is. He's white and traditionally masculine, from an upper-middle class family with liberal-minded parents -- sensitively played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel. But there's something powerful even in the film's ordinariness. Adapting a popular YA novel by Becky Albertalli, director Greg Berlanti serves us something familiar, presented with the high gloss of a studio picture.
We often say that representation matters, and we've been privileged to see that idea put into action with recent films like "Black Panther" and "A Wrinkle in Time" bringing diverse faces to the world of blockbuster filmmaking. And it's pretty damn great.
But at this point, films like these shouldn't be the outliers; going to the movies should always be like this. Everyone deserves the opportunity to see themselves reflected on screen, and not just in angsty, fraught tales that deal exclusively with characters grappling with those identities. It should be in action movies, mysteries, horror films, sci-fi, and yes, glossy rom-coms. This isn't "caving" to the demands of "social justice warriors," it's a necessary corrective, making the world on screen look more like the one outside your front door.
Any story that allows audiences to share the aspirations, hopes, and fears of someone outside their own realm of existence is useful and yes, even necessary. I can't imagine what the world might be like if we'd had movies like this all along, where LGBT or black or Asian or disabled kids had always been told that they were worthy of being the star of their own stories.
Hell, Keiynan Lonsdale, one of the young actors who stars in "Love, Simon," has said in interviews that working on the film provided him with the courage to come out. If that alone doesn't speak to whether a movie like this fills a need, I don't know what does.
When I think about how it felt to sit in a Regal theater and hear the young, mostly straight (to my eye, at least) audience cheer and applaud when two male characters share a kiss for the first time, I desperately want to feel that more often. Especially as I weigh that experience against the countless times I've been that same theater watching a film and, when even the slightest hint of gayness appears, steeling myself as I wait for snickers or crude comments -- and far too often, actually hearing them.
And maybe today's teens don't really need a movie like "Love, Simon." I'd love nothing more than for its warm-hearted inclusivity to feel old hat to them. But the young viewers sitting in that theater seemed to appreciate at least having the option, and I suspect there are plenty of grown-ups who will too.