Still, there is something problematic about Call Me By Your Name. It tells the story of a sexual affair between a seventeen-year-old boy named Elio (Chalamet) and a twenty-four-year-old man, Oliver (Hammer). At a time of heightened awareness about sexual abuse, especially in Hollywood, the difference in age between the two characters is more appalling than endearing. But the fact that Elio and Oliver become lovers also prevents the film from being a worthy meditation on something desperately needed today: Male mentorship.
Most informed and honest people are familiar with the statistics about fatherless boys—how young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families; how they have a higher risk of suicide and behavioral disorders; and how they are much more likely to drop out of school. Yet while these figures are striking and bolster the conservative argument that fathers are indispensable, there is also something to be said for the liberal case that it takes a village to raise a child. There once was a time when young men from bad homes could find male mentors in churches, the military, or even just fixing cars around the neighborhood.
One of the things that touched me so deeply about Call Me By Your Name is that the mise-en-scène was so similar to my own experience of adolescence. In the film it is the summer of 1983, and Elio Perlman is spending it with his family at their seventeenth-century villa in Lombardy, Italy. He meets Oliver, a handsome doctoral student who’s working as an intern for Elio’s father, a professor of classic archeology. The two characters are surrounded by lush beauty: the sun-drenched town square, the cool sensuality of a pool, a villa filled with intoxicating ideas and art. They fall in love.
While we are culturally in the middle of a 1980s revival that sees no sign of ending (see, for example, Stranger Things and the return of synth pop), Call Me By Your Name was far more evocative of the 1980s I remember when I was a high school student. My father was a writer for National Geographic, and my life, like Elio’s, was suffused with art, writing, beauty and ideas. The conversations around the dinner table, especially when we were joined by a friend of my father’s who was a scholar, were similar to the passionate dissertations given by Elio and his father, Mr. Perlman. Like Elio, I spent magical summers swimming, smoking and chasing girls.
Intelligent men like Oliver would often come into my life, either through my father or at places like tennis or football camp. But there was a crucial difference between these men and Oliver in Call Me By Your Name: None of these men came on to me sexually. The very idea would have been considered bizarre and evil—because they were men and I was still a boy.
The male friends that were part of my father’s life often became friends and mentors to me and encouraged my own writing. We would all stay up late sipping Irish whiskey (the drinking age was eighteen back then), me dazzled by their erudition and humor and them patiently listening to my theories about rock and roll saving the world. I still remember when dad and one of his friends, the great Irish writer Desmond Fennell, had a marathon all-night conversation in Fennell’s cottage on the west coast of Ireland, a conversation that ranged from God to Picasso, with stops along the way for Irish politics, the American Revolution, jazz, and Warren Zevon.
Fennell became one of my favorite role models, alongside the heavy metal musician who lived next door and the Jesuits who taught me at school. They helped me and many other boys understand what it meant to become men who were honorable. How much richer Call Me By Your Name would have been if the characters had been as noble, and the movie had explored mentorship rather than merely sexual attraction.
Image: Sony Pictures Classics