Simon is a regular teen with a regular life, which he outlines for the audience in voice over, but he has one secret: He’s gay, but still in the closet. His only attempt to flirt is with a cute landscaper who can’t hear him over the leafblower, so right away we know Simon wants to pursue romance, but isn’t ready to actually talk to someone who can respond. So when a school-oriented “whisper” blog alerts everyone to the presence of another closeted gay kid in his school, suddenly Simon has the perfect pen pal, someone to communicate with without real world expectations. Except two things happen: Simon falls in love with his e-pal “Blue”, and his dickhead classmate Martin blackmails him to disastrous results. 

Nick Robinson (Everything, Everything and Jurassic World) plays Simon with the dreaminess you want in a teen rom-com lead, and his performance recalls Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You, both in the “being involved a classmate’s elaborate romantical plot” way and the way of a young performer who is obviously brimming with talent that is barely being scratched. He broke out in 2013’s coming of age indie The Kings of Summer and it still feels like he’s on an upward trajectory, and Simon is his most realized performance yet. Even when Simon is f*cking up—mostly because of THAT DICKHEAD MARTIN—Robinson is never in danger of audience alienation. That is crucial in a rom-com, as we have to keep rooting for the protagonist even when they make that inevitable, critical third-act error that threatens their relationship (this is why Hugh Grant is such a great romantic lead, even when he’s being a boor, like Daniel Cleaver, you can’t help but like him). Love, Simon works in large part due to Robinson’s should-be-star-making performance. (Also, Nick Robinson is a long tall drink of water and only in one scene is he noticeably taller than everyone else, so I would like to know what the apple box budget was on set.)

The other reason Love, Simon works so well is that is just plain a f*cking good rom-com. There is a distinct Never Been Kissed vibe toward the end, a nod to 10 Things, and a little bit of a John Hughes-ian dramatic infusion around Simon’s come-out, but it never feels like it’s ripping off any other movie. The teens feel like teens in that they’re not perfectly polished, are prone to selfishness—especially THAT DICKHEAD MARTIN—and process everything according to how it affects them. There is no preternaturally self-possessed character, unless you count Simon’s younger sister whose defining trait is her interest in cooking. Simon’s family, by the way, consists of Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, both of whom should only ever play parents.

Adapted from Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, Love, Simon is Greg Berlanti’s first time directing a feature film since 2010’s Life As We Know It. In the eight years between these two movies, Berlanti has become the king of teen TV with shows like Arrow, The Flash, and most especially Riverdale, but there are some elements of Simon that seem a little retrograde and seem like a throwback to Berlanti’s days on Dawson’s Creek. In one scene, Simon googles “how to dress like a gay guy”—I’m not sure a teen in 2018 would bother. Also, the only out kid at school, Ethan (Clark Moore), is a raging stereotype, and while that has shades of the stereotype joke v in 10 Things, it only works in that movie because it’s pushed to a farcical extreme. Here, it’s just one stereotype stranded on its own, and it were it not for a genuinely good scene between Simon and Ethan, it wouldn’t work at all. 

In the big picture, though, those are relatively minor issues. Love, Simon manages to be genuinely funny—Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell steals every scene she’s in and has an applause-worthy monologue when some kids taunt Simon after he is forcibly outed—heartfelt without sinking into sap, and also genuinely romantic (Oreos!). Simon’s quest to connect with Blue is just the kind of melodramatic romantic wrangling a good teen rom-com needs, and when Blue is finally revealed, I dare you not to cheer. 

Not too long ago, a movie like Love, Simon being a mainstream studio release was unfathomable, but here we are in 2018 and it’s been released by Fox. (It opened at $11.5 million, slightly below expectations, but with an A+ CinemaScore word of mouth will be kind and it ought to have decent legs and potential as a sleeper hit.) And it functions so well as just a teen/romantic comedy that the fact that it is also a coming out story feels almost incidental. It’s not a disposable detail but Love, Simon isn’t invested in winking at its own representational importance. It just treats Simon like any other teen rom-com lead, and gets on with the high school hijinks. And that makes it extraordinary in a very ordinary way, and allows Love, Simon to just be itself, which is, really, the heart of the message.