‘Love, Victor’ Is Stellar, Sweet and Beautifully Truthful

Courtesy of Hulu
Courtesy of Hulu

Love, Victor is now available to stream on Hulu

Sequels may be tricky, but spinoffs are next to impossible. Especially when it’s a serialized TV spinoff of a popular film. What immediately comes to mind is the staggering failure of My Big Fat Greek Life, a CBS spinoff of Nia Vardalos’ mega-hit film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The short-lived sitcom stripped the original show of just about everything that made it enjoyable in the first place.  The heart, laughs, and nuance of the original film were gone, and the sitcom adaptation suffered a legendary crash and burn that doomed it to cancellation after just seven episodes on the air. I mention this because it is my great joy to report that Love, Victor, a streaming series spinoff of the popular 2018 film Love, Simon, has absolutely nothing in common with My Big Fat Greek Life.

First of all, I’m happy I can finally call Love, Simon a popular film. I initially saw it at a press screening in January 2018, two months before its theatrical release in March. In that time, 20th Century Fox, which has obviously now been swallowed by the Disney company, held many, many free preview screenings for Love, Simon. This amounted to somewhat disappointing box office returns, as many viewers who were looking forward to seeing it already had a chance to see it early and for free. I saw it multiple times in theaters because I adored it and I wanted to support it in any way I could, but that’s beside the point. The film itself was a modest financial success, grossing around $67 million worldwide on a $17 million budget.

But I wanted more for it. Love, Simon is one of my favorite films of 2018 and a film that I consider to be one of the most essential American films of the last decade. It’s a sweet, genuine, very John Hughes-ian romantic comedy from the perspective of a gay teenager. It’s quietly revolutionary in that it feels like any other rom-com, even though it’s something we’ve never quite seen before. It should have broken box office records, had an immediate sequel greenlit, and it should have been a global sensation. But, for whatever reason, it was simply a modest success. And then it went to the ancillary market, where it remained one of the most downloaded and rented films on iTunes and Amazon Video for months after its release. There was a clear interest in this property.

The new streaming service Disney+ greenlit an untitled Love, Simon spinoff adaptation last year, with Simon screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger serving as showrunners. This spinoff would focus on a new student at Creekwood High, unseen in Love, Simon, or any of the Becky Albertalli novels that served as the series’ basis. As filming was underway, Disney decided to move the series to Hulu, along with commissioning a writer’s room for a potential second season, officially titling the project Love, Victor. Now, I could easily talk about the reasons Disney decided to move this program from Disney+, where it would have enjoyed worldwide viewership, to Hulu, which is only available in the United States. I could talk about how this reeks of homophobia on Disney’s part and what that says about worldwide conglomerates like Disney, but I’m not going to talk about that.

Love, Victor follows 16-year-old Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino), who just moved to Atlanta with his family from Texas, and is starting at Creekwood High mid-year. On his first day, he’s told about Simon Spier, who after being publicly outed to his classmates, famously staged a declaration of love for another Creekwood student at the town fair. This is remembered as a legend in the Creekwood halls, and everyone remembers Simon for the bravery it took to be his true self. However, Victor’s life is a little more complicated than that.

Victor immediately finds Simon on Instagram and reaches out to him for advice. Victor is also struggling with his sexuality, much like Simon was. He says he’s not even sure what he wants, or who he likes, although it becomes increasingly clear Victor is suppressing his true self in the interest of keeping everyone around him happy. His relationship with his religious parents (Ana Ortiz and James Martinez) is more strained than Simon’s, and there’s a strong chance they wouldn’t be as loving and supportive if Victor were to reveal to them who he truly is. His relationship with his Daria-esque sister Pilar (Isabella Ferreria) is no better, and Victor has no one to truly confide in.

felix
Courtesy of Hulu

Victor meets Felix (Anthony Turpel), a neighbor and classmate, who becomes his immediate friend. He’s introduced to Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson), Lake (Bebe Wood) who immediately asks him if he has a girlfriend back home, which he consciously declines to use as an opportunity to come out. Victor is then introduced to Benji (George Sear), the dreamy and charming and openly gay student at Creekwood, who Victor immediately has heart-eyes for. Victor and Mia start to date, as Victor is still figuring out what he wants. He also gets a job at a local coffee shop, where Benji happens to also work, leading them to spend a lot of time together. He likes spending time with Mia, but there’s definitely something different happening whenever he talks to Benji. What will Victor do and how will he find the strength to be who he really is?

The framing device of Victor’s messages to Simon allows this spinoff to be more of a quasi-sequel. This allows for callbacks and cameos from Love, Simon cast members, none of which I’ll spoil. Part of the joy of this series is how seamless the storytelling from one project to the next feels. In the first few Victor episodes, I felt like this would make for a brilliant anthology series, with each respective season focusing on another character’s journey of coming out, and how there are endless ways to be true to oneself. But as the series progressed, I realized that is clearly not what is planned from a storytelling perspective. We don’t end with anything resolved. And not just that, but after spending ten short 30-minute episodes with these characters, I want to live in their world forever and I want this to run as long as Grey’s Anatomy.

Love, Victor also somehow finds a way to gently acknowledge the problems some people had with Love, Simon without diminishing any of its importance. Simon came from a white, affluent, and very liberal family who would inevitably be accepting of him at the end of the day. Victor, however, is from a Latinx, religious, and very middle-class background, and there’s less certainty over how his family would react to the news that their son is gay. Simon’s own journey and inner turmoil are not once reduced, but the show makes an effort to point out the circumstances that give Victor’s road more bumps, and it’s all done in a very elegant way that never feels heavy-handed or patronizing.

Courtesy of Hulu
Courtesy of Hulu

Michael Cimino’s portrayal of Victor is nothing short of triumphant. The only thing I can remember seeing Cimino in previously was a small role in Annabelle Comes Home, a movie I admittedly did not care for. This is a complete, full-stop star-making vehicle. Victor just seems like the nicest guy in the world and no wonder all of these people at a new school flock to him and immediately want to be his friend. Cimino has a very expressive face, and Victor often says the most in scenes where there’s no dialogue at all. His inner turmoil is well-represented from the very beginning and his journey is immediately important. He’s endlessly charismatic and engaging and gives you so many reasons to care about this character even in the beginning when we know very little about him.

Cimino’s performance may be the centerpiece, but there are so many others doing fantastic work here, and thanks to the long format, each character is given room to breathe and everyone has fully fleshed out character arcs. I’ll start by mentioning Rachel Naomi Hilson, who brings so much more than you’d expect to the character of Mia. This is a character that could easily seem like Victor’s meddling girlfriend who is only out for herself and doesn’t care about what he wants, but it’s clear from the beginning that isn’t who Mia is. Hilson’s nuanced and layered performance makes Mia a character to root for in her own right.

George Sear is also doing very good work in the role of Benji. Benji is a character who, in lesser hands, could be nothing more than the gay version of the manic pixie dream-boy archetype. He’s handsome, sweet, effortlessly cool. He’s in a band, he’s got a great group of friends, and he represents a life our lead character wants but is too scared to pursue. Sear is an English actor I’ve never seen in anything before. Despite the damn-near flawless accent work, he is constantly bringing so much to this character that subverts expectations at every turn. His chemistry with Cimino is also electric from the get-go and it’s nearly impossible not to root for this relationship.

Anthony Turpel’s Felix is a character that took a little longer to grow on me. In the beginning, he seems like the nerdy, borderline annoying neighbor who forces his friendship on Victor. That doesn’t last very long, thankfully. Felix is perhaps the most genuinely endearing character in this entire series. Once we learn more about his home life, it’s clear he’s just as lost as anyone else and we totally understand why he’s desperate for friendship. The viewer just wants to give Felix a great, big hug. He also has great chemistry with Bebe Wood, who plays Lake. Lake is another character who has a big, exuberant personality from the beginning and I wasn’t sure initially how I felt about her. Wood brings so much to this character as well, and it’s impossible by the end not to love her.

I’ve always been a big fan of Ana Ortiz, after memorable roles in Ugly Betty and Devious Maids. She’s so good here as Victor’s mom Isabel. Isabel and her husband Armando are reeling from the event that forced them to move to Atlanta in the first place. They’re constantly entangled in their own drama, and even though they truly are good parents, they sometimes don’t even notice their own children silently screaming for help. Martinez and especially Ortiz somehow make these emotionally distant parents truly sympathetic and compassionate people.

Love, Victor succeeds where so many spinoffs have failed for one big reason, and I believe that’s the writing. Aptaker and Berger are clearly approaching this with the exact amount of care and emotional detail that went into the Love, Simon script. This is every bit as emotionally involving and gently heart-wrenching as the novels and film that inspired it, and it’s evident from the very beginning. No spoilers, but we end in a spot that demands more episodes. Even though the ending is climactic, it’s clear there is so much more story to tell and so many more places for these characters to go emotionally.

Considering the content of this series, I have no idea what Disney+ deemed inappropriate enough to send it over to Hulu. There is nothing here that’s unsuitable for its intended audience. Having said that, I’m excited by the idea of the show tackling more adult storylines in a potential second season. Like I said, a writer’s room has been commissioned for a second season, but Hulu has yet to renew. There are so many places for Victor’s story to go. This show is going to mean so much to so many people and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Love, Victor is a stellar, sweet, and beautifully truthful delight and it’s exactly what audiences need right now.

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