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"Love, Simon" breaks ground with a radical ordinariness

LOS ANGELES (AP) — "Love, Simon" is in many ways an ordinary high school film, one of those glossy, endlessly watchable and entertaining romps made in the vein of all those John Hughes classics of the 1980s with a modern edge, like the love-child of "Sixteen Candles" and "Easy A."

But "Love, Simon" has one difference: The protagonist is gay. And that fact makes the film, in theaters Friday, a landmark release for major Hollywood studios. It wasn't all that long ago when its director Greg Berlanti had to fight tooth and nail to get the first romantic kiss between two men on television screens on "Dawson's Creek." He remembers he had to threaten to quit for the idea to even be entertained. That was 2000.

It wouldn't be until 2015 when Becky Albertalli's book "Simon vs The Homo Sapien's Agenda," about a 16-year-old boy who hasn't yet come out to his friends and family, caught the eye of Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen, the producers responsible for everything from "Twilight" to "The Fault in Our Stars." Always on the hunt for a fresh angle in the teen romance genre, they and Fox 2000 executives realized Simon's story was it.

"There is so much representation (of the LGBTQ community) in television, but, for some reason, we've lagged behind in the movie business and so it's time for us to catch up," Godfrey said. It's not that Hollywood studios haven't centered high-profile stories around gay protagonists, or even coming-of-age stories with a gay lead— just last year "Moonlight" won best picture at the Oscars and this year "Call Me By Your Name" was nominated for that top award. But most of those films didn't get "Love, Simon's" reported $17 million budget and a wide-release out of the gates. And the slick high school comedy was one that still hadn't yet been done.

Film critic Guy Lodge called the film "adorable," noting that, "'Adorable' is not a word we often use when discussing LGBT cinema, even at its most swooningly romantic." Berlanti, who is gay, remembers telling Fox executives early on that, "There hasn't been a teen romance like this."

"I think they knew its importance and they had the desire to sort of do it," Berlanti said. "But I don't think that they were as aware of the absence of feeling that sense of representation. And then as we all sort of started to look and see, you know, and actually check the figures that there really hadn't been. You know, I think we all collectively became more aware of the importance of that element."

And perhaps one of the most groundbreaking aspects is the universality of Simon's story. "It just shows how far we have come in Hollywood, and in general have come, to represent stories, tell stories like this, that I think many people can identify with, regardless of orientation," said actor Nick Robinson, who plays Simon.

The Wrap's Alonso Duralde said in his review that, "There's a place in the culture for adolescent gay kids to enjoy the shiny, shallow coming-of-age stories that their straight peers consume on a daily basis. The first one out of the gate always plays it safe; the trick now is to keep the gate open."

Others wonder if it'll even make an impact with young people today. Daniel D'Addario, writing in Time, even questioned whether today's teens "need" a film like "Love, Simon," which, he writes, "Feels like a film responding to an entirely different culture, like one in which gay marriage was never legalized."

Berlanti said he believes that everyone has a "coming out" in one way or another. "Whether you're coming out about where you live or who you love or what you want to do, and the shame that's sometimes around that, and the fear that's around that, and then the empowerment of recognizing that and saying it out loud and realizing that people will love you just as much and that your life will be more thriving as a result, I think, is something that everyone can experience in this film," Berlanti said.

But "Love, Simon" is undeniably a major breakthrough for Hollywood, which is still lacking in meaningful LGBTQ representation, and possibly the culture at large. Remember last year when the "gay moments" in films like "Power Rangers" and "Beauty and the Beast" spawned dozens of think pieces?

GLAAD's annual Studio Responsibility Index found that in 2016, only 23, or 18.4%, of major studio releases had any LGBTQ characters. And 10 of those characters were on screen for less than one minute.

"It's about time that LGBTQ teen love stories get the big Hollywood release treatment, and 'Love, Simon' does so in an entertaining and heartfelt way that will resonate with all youth," said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. "Having a movie like this would've meant the world to me growing up, so I know how much it will mean to LGBTQ youth today."

AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr contributed to this report.

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