Despite critical acclaim, ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is extremely problematic


Photo by Elena Ringo, used with permission.

A young boy rides a bike serenely through the Italian countryside. He’s 17 but his face is so youthful he could pass as anything from 13 to 19 years old. His agenda for the day consists of picking peaches off trees in the sunshine or maybe taking a walk down by the water. The scenery is idyllic and tranquil.

Ever since news broke that “Call Me By Your Name,” a novel by André Aciman, would be adapted for film, I have seen countless people praise it. My favorite book review channels on YouTube hailed it as a beautiful coming-of-age tale of the forbidden romance between Elio, an Italian teen and Oliver, his father’s young assistant. I believed them, at first.

I wasn’t put off by the two leads in the film being gay. I was actually happy to see a healthy teenage romance portrayed so beautifully on the big screen. When I saw stills of Timotheé Chamalet pedaling through the stunning streets of Italy, he exuded old-Hollywood charm. I was excited for the movie based on the sheer artistic quality alone.

However, as I scrolled further through these images, I had trouble identifying who Chamalet’s love interest was meant to be. I could only find photos of him with a man who looked much too old to be a teenager. I assumed he was Elio’s father. But as I watched the trailer, I began to get a sick feeling in my stomach.

Seventeen and 24. That’s how old the two leads are supposed to be. In real life, Chamalet is 21 years old, and Armie Hammer, the actor who plays Oliver, is 31. Elio and Oliver have an age gap of seven years, while Chamalet and Hammer have an age gap of 10 years. Elio would also be considered underage in most parts of America.

The age of consent in this situation is blurry, since the film takes place in Italy, so let’s assume for a moment that there is no statutory rape in this situation. Still, “Call Me By Your Name” relies heavily on sexual and emotional manipulation to drive the plot. Despite Elio desperately wanting to pursue a relationship with Oliver, the psychological impact of the intense, short-lived relationship leaves him feeling hopelessly depressed. It’s said in the novel that even 20 years later, Elio is not able to move past the damages Oliver inflicted on him.

If this movie had been framed as a cautionary tale, I would have had less of an issue with it. However critics and Elio’s own parents repeatedly attempt to push the idea that having an intensely passionate, extremely sexual affair with an older man is normal. Experts agree that this kind of relationship is dangerous for the mental health of the younger partner. Effects can include depression and personality disorders. While the film addresses this, it’s written off as a mere side-effect of “true love.”

Let me make this clear: “true love” does not leave people broken. “True love” does not take an emotionally vulnerable teenage boy and promise him an impossible future, eventually crushing his hopes like a sun-ripened peach in an Italian orchard.

Oliver goes on to marry a woman just a couple months later. To him, this “romance” was a summer fling. He played with Elio the way one plays with a child. Even when they uttered the titular phrase “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” he was simply humoring him. He took Elio’s fantasy, one that felt very real, promised it to him, and ripped it away once he got what he wanted.

This story, at its core, is not a romance. It’s a tragedy. It’s abuse. An older man had some experimental homosexual fun and returned to his normal life as if nothing happened. A young boy had his life changed forever by a man who didn’t even care.

There’s a particular scene in this film that breaks my heart. Elio is sitting in the passenger seat as his mom drives. His eyes are a painful red, and his face is streaked with tears. His mother cradles his head with a sweet, nurturing smile on her face. You can’t look at that shot and tell me that’s not a child sitting beside her.

Why doesn’t this film receive more negative criticism? Not only did it avoid scrutiny, but it won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars and received acclaim from multiple film festivals. It doesn’t seem to enrage people the same way a heterosexual underage romance would.

There’s a reason why. It all goes back to the infinitely harmful but ever-persistent idea that men cannot experience abuse. It’s sexism keeping this film afloat. If there had been an underage girl, like in the movie “American Beauty,” there would be an uproar. People would be rushing to the aid of this poor, defenseless girl. But they never went out for Oliver’s blood, because men are strong. Elio, despite being young and inexperienced, is technically a man. And therefore, he isn’t worthy of pity. He needs to shut away and internalize that pain, that abuse, and put on a brave face. After all, it was just a harmless summer romance.

This is dangerous media for teens to consume. “Call Me By Your Name” normalizes pedophilia, reinforces the stereotype of gay men being predators and perpetuates sexism. It encourages young teens to pursue older men, completely ignoring the possible dangerous mental and physical repercussions, all under the guise of being a teen romance.

If you want a heartwarming teenage romcom with a gay romance, watch “Love, Simon.” If you want to see a grown man irreparably scar a teenager, there’s always “Lolita.”