At first it looks little different from any other teen drama, but Fox's "Love, Simon" is as significant a milestone for LGBT inclusion as "Black Panther" was for racial diversity.
While the DVD aisles of superstores the world over groan under the weight of stories of callow first love, never before has a mainstream studio romantic comedy been told from the perspective of a gay teenager.
"Everyone, myself included, can relate to Simon and his journey, and trying to find yourself and come to terms with yourself in a way that feels comfortable," the film's 22-year-old star Nick Robinson said at a recent preview screening in Los Angeles.
Jorge Lendeborg, Nick Robinson, Alexandra Shipp and Katherine Langford in a scene from “Love, Simon”.
Directed by Greg Berlanti ("The Flash," "Supergirl") while he was on a break from his various TV jobs last January, "Love, Simon" is based on Becky Albertalli's young adult novel "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda."
Robinson ("Jurassic World," "Everything, Everything") plays Simon Spier, a high school senior in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, who hasn't told his family or friends he's gay.
Compounding his problems, Simon has fallen for "Blue," a fellow closeted classmate he chats with online, although he has no idea of his paramour's true identity.
"Love, Simon" figures among a number of coming-of-age gay movies released in recent months, including the Oscar-winning "Call Me By Your Name" and "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," which scooped top prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
What makes it unique is that it is a wide-release, mainstream rom-com aimed as much at the Saturday afternoon shopping mall market as the indie-centric festival crowd or motion picture academy.
Nick Robinson in a scene from “Love, Simon”.
Studios have long insisted that moviegoers won't show up for stories of gay romance, dismissing the 178-million-US dollar box office for "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 as an anomaly.
Yet the phenomenal box office success of "Black Panther" – 1.1 billion US dollars and counting despite a longstanding belief that "black movies" are not much of a draw overseas – is challenging received wisdom all over Hollywood.
"Love, Simon" has a 91 percent approval rating, according to 23 reviews collated by entertainment website Rotten Tomatoes, and is tracking to make 18 million US dollars across its debut weekend when it opens on Friday.
Box office monitor Exhibitor Relations is predicting a 55-million-US dollar domestic run – a healthy return for a project that cost 17 million US dollars to make.
"At a cultural moment when it matters so much for audiences to see themselves represented on screen, 'Love, Simon' broadens the spectrum to include those who are questioning their sexuality," wrote Variety film critic Peter Debruge.
(From L to R) Greg Berlanti, Terayle Hill, Becky Albertalli, Alexandria Shipp and Nick Robinson pose with moviegoers at a "Love, Simon" fan screening in Atlanta, Georgia, March 5, 2018.
Josh Duhamel, who plays Simon's loving parent, said "Love, Simon" had made him think about how he would react if his boy came out as gay when he was older.
"I truly just want my kid to be happy and passionate about whatever it is he loves. And if he came out as gay, so be it, if that makes him happy. I truly believe that's what it would be," the 45-year-old said.
Berlanti said the warm reaction at screenings across the US had moved him, not just as a director appreciating the acclaim, but also as a gay man seeing audiences applaud a same-sex kiss.
The director revealed at a press day in Los Angeles on Saturday that during the shoot he would go in over the weekend to review footage – sometimes even the most mundane scenes – and suddenly start crying.
"It was a real visceral kind of like a void that I didn't even know needed to be filled that was getting filled," he said.
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