Call Me by Your Name is one of the best movies of the year. It’s a gorgeous, sun-soaked romance that fully crystallizes the pain and euphoria of a first love, while also proudly telling that story from a gay man’s point of view. But beneath the film’s romance, the buoyant charm of its Northern Italy setting (which inspired me to browse Airbnbs on the Italian-French border), and charismatic performances from its leads Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, there’s another story that’s equally beautiful: one about the relationship between Elio Perlman (Chalamet) and his parents.
“One of the sentiments that I love most strongly is the idea that as humans, we go through all sorts of things, and how lovely for a parent to say, ‘I see what you’re going through, and as hard as it may be, don’t crush it or try to ignore it,’” Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father in the movie, recently told Vox.
“So many things resonate with me in the telling of that — particularly to have those sentiments conveyed from a parent to a child,” he said.
Stuhlbarg’s benevolent performance anchors the movie. It won’t be a surprise if he eventually walks away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But his role is significant even if it doesn’t snag him any awards.
Stuhlbarg, alongside his co-star Amira Casar as Elio’s mother Annella (we never learn Mr. Perlman’s first name), plays a character we rarely see in LGBTQ stories.
The parents have a frictionless relationship with Elio, allowing their son to explore his feelings and remaining unambiguously accepting of his sexual orientation. It’s a caring, tender family dynamic that also functions as one of the more loving, if not aspirational, aspects of the film.
First and foremost, Call Me by Your Name functions splendidly as a delicate, poignant romance. But the way it portrays the Perlmans’ relationship to Elio — the way Mr. and Mrs. Perlman communicate with one another, and how the film depicts parenthood — also makes it more than that. Call Me by Your Name expands the Perlman family dynamic in a way that the structure of the source novel doesn’t allow for, and in the process, it becomes a powerful coming-of-age tale. The overall story is not only stronger as a result, but lets the movie more thoroughly evoke the original spirit of the book.
The Perlmans represent the kind of parents we rarely see in gay coming-of-age movies
Call Me by Your Name, like 2016’s Moonlight and 2015’s Carol, offers a crucial instance of representation for people who historically haven’t gotten to see themselves in movies — let alone movies that draw sparkling praise from critics. That’s been changing little by little: Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture earlier this year, and several great LGBTQ movies — including Beach Rats, BPM, God’s Own Country, and Thelma — have been released in the months since, and garnered critical attention and acclaim. But with its Oscar buzz and momentum, Call Me by Your Name feels like 2017’s standout example.
What makes watching the film such a strange, surreal experience for LGBTQ viewers is the relief that comes once you realize that its love story doesn’t contain any punishment or human awfulness. While Elio’s parents don’t play huge roles in the film, their acceptance and encouragement of Elio bolsters the loving spirit of the movie, really driving home that Call Me by Your Name is a celebration of LGBTQ love and identity.
Well-known LGBTQ stories like Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia, Boys Don’t Cry, and The Normal Heart are important because they capture and never let us forget that survival for LGBTQ people — in a world that for large swaths of history has tried to make them disappear — is equal parts defiance, love, and struggle. But more recent stories like Moonlight, Carol, and Call Me by Your Name go a step further, to imagine the possibility beyond that struggle.
In Call Me by Your Name in particular, director Luca Guadagnino breathes life into the bones of its source novel, written by André Aciman. Aciman’s story was published in 2007, but it’s set in an idyllic version of 1983 that exists outside of Ronald Reagan’s America and beyond the grip of the AIDS crisis. The story focuses on the summer of Elio Perlman’s coming of age, and how a graduate student named Oliver, who’s staying with Elio’s family, soon becomes the first love of Elio’s young life.
Many of the scenes from the book make their way to the screen, but one of the biggest differences between Aciman’s novel and Guadagnino’s film is how much more dynamic Elio’s parents become. Since the book is told in first person from Elio’s point of view, we only know Elio’s parents through his eyes. They’re figures he tells us about, but we don’t really see what the Perlmans see or actually get to know them.
Guadagnino’s movie extracts the Perlmans from Elio’s inner monologue and brings them to life. Guadagnino gives them small moments here and there — glimmers of affection for each other and for their son, and space to exist outside of Elio’s perspective.
The movie unfolds chronologically (Stuhlbarg says it was shot chronologically too). And as it progresses, Elio grows, as does his relationship with his parents. We see Mr. Perlman, shocked and joking in response to Elio’s boast of almost having sex. We see a moment of vulnerability when Mrs. Perlman strokes Elio’s hair while she reads him a fairy tale during a summer rainstorm. And though Elio never fully comes out, it’s no great leap to conclude that his parents understand that their son is gay and has found his first love.
“[Professor Perlman] loves his son, and wants to celebrate and share his son. And he wants to hold on to him as long as he can,” Stuhlbarg says.
There are lots of movies about good parents. There aren’t a lot of movies about being a good parent to LGBTQ kids.
There’s no shortage of cinematic depictions of parental love, which can of course take many different forms — as seen across genres and in all kinds of movies, from Finding Nemo to Taken to Moonstruck.
Harder to spot, however, are onscreen examples of what constitutes being a good, loving parent to an LGBTQ child. Fundamentally, heterosexual parents haven’t lived through their LGBTQ children’s experiences — particularly the painful ones. And though American society in large part has become more accepting of LGBTQ people over time, we’re all still learning what that acceptance looks like, what it sounds like, and how to express it with clarity.
For Aciman and Guadagnino, the lesson becomes clear in Professor Perlman’s last speech to Elio. Regardless of whom Elio loves, his father acknowledges that Elio is experiencing love (and the aches that come with it), and encourages Elio to feel every second of it.
“In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent,” Mr. Perlman tells Elio. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new.”
It’s a beautiful, powerful combination of words that brought me to tears when I read Aciman’s novel. And the same scene moved me similarly when I saw Guadagnino and Stuhlbarg bring Aciman’s prose to life.
Mr. Perlman’s speech is the last round moment in the film, and it emphasizes the fact that there’s no real antagonist in Call Me by Your Name. Time — and specifically the relative lack of it in any human life — is the only villain in this dreamy movie. And perhaps that’s why it doesn’t feel as historically vital in the way some of its cinematic predecessors have, since it doesn’t have a fight to win, a struggle to never forget, or a blistering lesson to teach us.
But that doesn’t make Call Me by Your Name any less beautiful or powerful. It’s the rare movie that dares to show us what unconditional love is, not just from romantic interests, but also from the people who love us the most and know us the best.