‘Love, Simon’ joins an important, ever-growing list: joyful representations of LGBTQ characters on screen.
Let’s face it; we’ve had enough depressing gay movies. Until recently, the LGBTQ stories that got the most screen time were all about abuse, death, and disappointment. Acclaimed movies like My Own Private Idaho, Philadelphia, Boys Don’t Cry, and Brokeback Mountain did a great job breaking our hearts, but eventually, we had to ask the question: are there any happy endings for queer characters?
Luckily, the answer is yes. Recent award season favorites Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name mix realistic periods of sadness with soaring romantic highs, while the positive representation of incidentally LGBTQ characters on television appears to be skyrocketing year to year. Plus, Greg Berlanti’s new teen movie Love, Simon is a valuable entry into the queer coming-of-age canon, a crowd-pleasing big studio flick that portrays hope and friendship as powerful tools in the face of adversity. So if you need a break from tragedy, tune in to any one of these light (or at least ultimately happy) series or films, and revel in that sweet, sweet escapism that we all love and deserve.
Love, Simon (2018)
Tender, funny, angsty and occasionally pointed, Love, Simon is the gay cousin of comfort-food teen classics like 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s a young adult book adaptation that both embraces and grows beyond familiar coming-of-age beats thanks to the cautious optimism that underscores each scene. Nick Robinson is charming as Simon Spier, an unassuming high school dude who is forced to come to terms with his sexuality when an anonymous gay blogger starts making makes waves in his community. Love, Simon’s best bits come in the form of quiet, painfully recognizable markers of gay youth that have rarely been seen in a mainstream American movie, but it’s the cheer-worthy idealistic last act that solidifies its spot on this list.
Imagine Me & You (2006)
On paper, this Ol Parker-directed British flick is an undeniably conventional rom-com. And maybe it is: after all, it has meet-cutes, love triangles, relationship-testing moments, and a silly romantic gesture to top off the whole affair. But the story–about a woman (Piper Perabo) who marries a man but almost immediately afterward finds herself falling for a woman (Lena Headey)–is sweet, and the film has become a bit of a queer cult classic. The story is made lovelier by Parker’s refusal to stoop to the typical romcom level of melodrama. He populates the movie with characters who, if not fully understanding one another’s motivations, still respect each others’ choices in the face of big, heart-stopping love.
This Netflix series isn’t technically over (it was cancelled after two seasons, but one more supersized episode is set to air later this year), but its treatment of LGBTQ characters has been so good that it’d be hard to believe that at least some of the sensates (all of whom co-showrunner Lana Wachowski has identified as pansexual) won’t have a happy ending. Representation aside, Sense8 has a lot going for it, including some stellar on-location cinematography from all over the world and an intriguing sci-fi plot–the sensates are eight strangers across the world who develop a psychic link–that’s ripe for interpretation. The best part of Sense8 is that despite what I just said, there’s no need to put representation aside since the show is about so many queer characters whose identities are central to the plot. Most notably, Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender character played by a transgender actress, a TV landmark during a time when cisgender and straight actors still frequently end up playing members of the LGBTQ community on screen.
But I’m a Cheerleader (2000)
You know those over-the-top gender reveal parties you see online, where a baby girl is signified by ballet shoes and a baby boy is a John Deere tractor? This movie is that, but in on the joke. Initial reviews called it a John Waters ripoff, and director Jamie Babbit’s sensibilities are similar to the king of camp’s. The comedy is set mostly at a parodied gay conversion camp, which overflows with bright shades of blue and bubblegum pinks, along with queer icons like RuPaul (looking nearly unrecognizable in a goatee and “Straight is Great” T-shirt) and Waters regular Mink Stole. But I’m a Cheerleader has rightfully gained cult recognition because it isn’t afraid to laugh at the parts of being LGBTQ which in reality are very scary. Coming out, breaking gender roles, and facing homophobia from family and friends all become fodder for cutting satire and pure entertainment.
The Way He Looks (2014)
This Brazilian film, which in Portuguese is titled Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (literally, “Today I want to go back alone”), is another sweet love story between two school-age boys. The main character is Leo (Ghilherme Lobo), a good-natured blind boy who spends his time daydreaming about being kissed alongside his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim), and dodging the taunts of his classmates and the anxieties of his parents. The introduction of a new classmate named Gabriel (Fabio Audi) throws his simple daily routine for a loop, and soon he’s going to the movies, observing the night sky, and considering travel abroad. Movies about characters with disabilities can be tough to pull off without seeming patronizing, but Leo and Gabriel’s story (based on an earlier short film featuring the same actors) is nothing but tender and inspiring.
Black Mirror, “San Junipero” (2016)
This Emmy and BAFTA-winning episode of Charlie Brooker’s technology-centric anthology series would suffer from overhype if it weren’t actually so damn good. Nothing you’ve heard about it compares to seeing the real thing; an ‘80s set love story with a twist that stars Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. As with most of Black Mirror, the less you know going into it the better, but it’s worth mentioning that “San Junipero” is an emotional roller coaster that will make you look at love and time in a new way, and you may never hear Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” without shedding a (happy!) tear again. On top of all that, it seems to have also inspired one of the best (and most joyfully queer) music videos of the year.
Yuri!!! on Ice (2016)
The anime event that made countless non-anime fans sign up for Crunchyroll, Yuri!!! on Ice is a groundbreaking single-season anime series about, of all things, figure skating. The series centers on two people named Yuri (one an aspiring Japanese figure skater, the other a Russian teen skating protegee) and the Russian skating legend, Victor, whom they both idolize. Soon, two of the characters begin to form an understated but powerful connection, one that’s especially poignant given that offscreen, both their home countries don’t allow same-sex marriage. After gaining word-of-mouth praise on social media that led to buzz about a second season, the series gained new levels of recognition when it was repped at the Olympics; earlier this year a Japanese duo skated in Pyongyang to a routine from the series, accompanied by a song from the soundtrack.
Based on an E.M. Forster story that was written in the 1910s and published posthumously, Maurice is the dreamy gay period piece we didn’t know we needed. The movie stars James Wilby as Maurice, a man coming to terms with his sexuality around the turn of the century. A fresh-faced Hugh Grant plays Maurice’s first love, while Rupert Graves plays a pivotal role later in the film. If shots and moments bring to mind another beautiful European romance between two men, it’s for a good reason: this acclaimed but underseen movie was directed and co-written by James Ivory, who finally won an Oscar thirty years later for his Call Me By Your Name screenplay.
Forget True Blood and Twilight: Joseph Le Fanu’s gothic novella Carmilla featured one of the original sexy vampires all the way back in 1871. In an idea that wasn’t so strange back in 2014 (see also The Lizzie Bennet Diaries), the classic story was adapted into a modern vlog-style web series with the same name. While the original story’s titular character was a somewhat villainous lesbian vampire, the three-season modern Canadian dramedy casts her as the mysterious new roommate of a college student named Laura (Elisa Bauman). Like most vlog-structured web series, the limits of format make Carmilla tough to binge-watch without getting exhausted, but when savored over time, it’s a fun supernatural mystery. The series was capped off by a feature-length movie that broke out of the single-angle format and, in a callback to the novella, moved the action to a Victorian mansion.
Yes or No (2010)
This college-set Thai romance deals with heavier topics than some of the other entries on this list, namely homophobia and family estrangement after coming out. Like But I’m A Cheerleader, it sometimes mines these topics for comedy, and it also balances them out with cute, innocent moments and a sincere resolution. The plot revolves around new roommates, tomboy (or “tom” in Thailand) Kim (Supanart Jittaleela) and rigidly conservative Pie (Suchar Manaying) as they meet, clash, grow closer, and eventually consider a romantic relationship. The movie is often cited as the first Thai film to follow a “tom” lead character, and it eventually spawned a sequel and, oddly, a third film called Yes or No 2.5 which only features one of the original actresses.
Orphan Black (2013-2017)
A full-throttle thriller and one of the most impressively acted series in recent memory, Orphan Black was the first series I’d ever seen to feature characters representing every letter in LGBTQ while not being exclusively about life in the queer community. The series follows a set of clones, all played by Tatiana Maslany, including lesbian scientist Cosima, bisexual heroine Sarah, and Tony, who is transgender. While Cosima and her on-and-off lady love Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) captured fans’ hearts and were subsequently put through the ringer by writers, flamboyant right-hand-man Felix (an excellent Jordan Gavaris) is perhaps the show’s best character. Fe is Sarah’s adopted sibling, an artist and sex worker, and as the series wore on for five seasons, he’s also an ever-welcome voice of sarcasm and sass in the face of danger.
Saving Face (2004)
Another feel-good lesbian movie that skirts realism in favor of a happy ending (which, given the aforementioned plethora of Sad Gay Movies, is fine by me), Saving Face is based on director Alice Wu’s experiences as a Chinese-American lesbian. The film shows what love looks like across three generations, following surgeon Wil (Michelle Krusiec), her mother (Joan Chen), and her grandmother (Guang Lan Koh). While Wil’s mother finds herself pregnant and unwed at middle age, Wil begins reconnecting with a childhood friend, now a professional dancer, who will eventually turn her life upside down. Saving Face includes the same climactic dilemma–one partner’s ultimatum about coming out–that’s become a bit of a trope in queer romance films, but it manages to remain an earnest, upbeat exploration of how it feels to reckon with cultural expectations.