(L-R) Greg Berlanti, Terayle Hill, Becky Albertalli, Alexandria Shipp and Nick Robinson pose with movie audience members at a "Love, Simon" fan screening in Atlanta, Georgia on March 5
Los Angeles (AFP) - 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.
Directed by Greg Berlanti ("The Flash," "Supergirl") while he was on 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.
- 'Cultural moment' -
Studios have long insisted that moviegoers won't show up for stories of gay romance, dismissing the $178 million box office for "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 as an anomaly.
Yet the phenomenal box office success of "Black Panther" -- $1.1 billion 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 across its debut weekend when it opens on Friday.
Box office monitor Exhibitor Relations is predicting a $55 million domestic run -- a healthy return for a project that cost $17 million 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.
Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner play Simon's loving parents, while his group of friends includes Katherine Langford, the star of buzzy Netflix drama "13 Reasons Why."
"I was talking to a friend of mine as I was trying to decide, 'Do I do this? Is this movie going to work?'" Garner ("Dallas Buyers Club," "Daredevil"), 45, said at the screening.
"And he said, 'You know, this movie would have been really helpful for me when I was growing up. This would have been a big deal for me.'"
- Filling the void -
Duhamel, who stars in the "Transformers" franchise and was in Berlanti's last movie "Life as We Know It" (2010), has a four-year-old son with his ex-wife, the pop singer Fergie.
He 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.
"Maybe it's because I waited a while before I became a parent. I've seen a lot, I have a lot of gay friends and so I really don't care."
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, adding that he wondered if he was too close to the production to trust his emotions.
"I brought my now husband, then fiance, in and he started watching it with me and he started bawling -- (at) regular family scenes. It was just the simple power of representation."