Queer Film Festival 2020: ‘Beautiful Thing’ and ‘Love, Simon’

We’ve reached the end of the month and this long project, wrapping up with a pair of sweet teen romances that show while we’ve come quite a ways, we still have far to go.

It’s bizarre to me that 22 years separate 1996’s low-key charmer Beautiful Thing and 2018’s fluffy mainstream rom-com Love, Simon. Well-received indie films generally get co-opted by the mainstream faster than that, but not when the scarlet letter GAY is involved, maybe?

I probably found Beautiful Thing at one of the local video stores, possibly after reading about it in The Advocate, or maybe I just saw the cute teens on the cover and read between the lines. It was nothing like the major media push Love, Simon got, which had all of my gay friends and even my 16-year-old nice all a-twitter.

I wound up seeing Simon three times in the theater — once with a group of gays and allies all up for a good cry, once with a good movie buddy and once with my niece. She and I have gone to lots of movies together, but this one was special. I even managed not to sob out loud, though I’m sure I let loose at least one snuffling breath.

Watching it through her eyes, I saw a sweet teen romance that just happened to take place between two guys (rather, between one guy and several guys he imagines are his secret penpal). I couldn’t imagine being able to watch a film like that at her age, or that it would ultimately be no big deal to see it (much less with a cool gay uncle, which I decidedly did not have).

So when I re-watch Simon, it’s already tinted with some rosy nostalgia (even though it’s only two years old). But more than that, it feels like what I imagine life might have been like if I’d been aware enough and brave enough to come out at 18 years old myself. At 18, I might have been wildly dreaming about kissing the cutest boy in school on top of a Ferris wheel, but it was far from a realistic fantasy, so it’s only in nostalgic reveries that I can even pretend to have been a Simon, or a Jamie or a Ste.

But where I most identify with Simon (Nick Robinson) is in how his mom (a perfectly warm and loving Jennifer Garner) describes him, as if he’s been “holding (his) breath” for years. “You get to exhale now, Simon,” she tells him after he comes out on Christmas morning. “You get to be more you than you have been in a very long time.”

Oof, I still get teary even thinking about that scene, just like I always get butterflies when I hear Mama Cass sing “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” which underscores a delightful scene of Jamie (Glen Berry) and Ste (Scott Neal) making out in the woods. And, even more so, when I hear “I Am 16 (Going on 17),” which subversively plays under their first, furtive love scene.

Beautiful Thing is very nearly as sweet as Love, Simon, especially in those two scenes and its emotionally rich finale, but it’s considerably grittier and more realistic, in part owing to its setting among everyday, working-class Britons rather than a bunch of impossibly rich, vaguely diverse Americans.

Simon’s struggle to come out, while authentic, doesn’t really have a lot of stakes. Did you ever doubt that Jennifer Garner or Josh Duhamel would do the right thing, or that Simon’s friends would forgive him? No. But in Beautiful Thing, there’s real, honest tension over whether closed-off Ste could ever open up enough to let Jamie in, or if his abusive father and brother will beat the shit out of him (well, more) should they figure out his sexuality. Even the close relationship between Jamie and his mom (the sensational Linda Henry) gets rocked, and realistically so, by the revelation of his sexuality.

Yes, Beautiful Thing ends with a scene just as fantastical as Simon‘s Ferris wheel ride, but it’s earned it a bit more. That’s one reason I’m happy to see Hulu’s Love, Victor, a messier sequel that takes Simon‘s nearly twee perfection head-on.

But, that said, there’s still a place for a swooningly romantic teen film — absolutely, there is. After watching 59 other films this month exploring virtually every facet of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s a heartening reminder of what we have fought for and what we continue to fight for — our own happy endings, whatever they may be.

Thanks for following along. I won’t be writing about two movies every day, but I do plan on writing about queer films regularly. Please feel free to leave suggestions here or on my socials — especially films you think I might not have seen.

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