Over time, my feelings for the movies — or for film, when I’m feeling pretentious — have morphed from common enjoyment to personal sanity hobby to deep appreciation for filmmaking as an art. I am still an amateur movie-watcher in every respect, but my perspective on movies and the ways I engage with them have evolved significantly. I pay attention to and appreciate smaller details and very specific elements of filmmaking that I never noticed at all in the past. I think about the intentions of the writers and directors and actors and can find value in their work even when I don’t particularly enjoy it or share their point of view. I’m even doing some research for a story a friend and I hope will eventually become a script, so I’m now watching movies with a deeper appetite for learning and understanding than ever before.
The most important part of that information for the sake of this piece is this: I see a lot of movies, including movies I’m confident I won’t like very much. So in recent years I’ve made a point of catching a greater number of Academy Award nominated films. My skepticism of these awards runs deep, but I’m interested in what kind of work the people who are making our movies value and celebrate. If nothing else, the Oscar-nominated films give some rough estimate of that.
On Tuesday, this year’s nominees were announced, and as I always do, I began to make a mental note of which nominated films I haven’t seen, particularly in the major categories. There were only two Best Picture nominees – The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name – that I hadn’t seen. I had already decided to pass on Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water because it’s a fantasy love story about a woman and a sea monster and, well, no thanks. I don’t see everything.
I knew almost nothing about Call Me By Your Name, but it also received nominations for Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet) and Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory). As a writer I have a particular interest in the screenplay categories, so I skipped around the internet and read a summary, a review, and excerpts from several other reviews. Here’s what I assume is the studio’s summary:
It’s the summer of 1983, and precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman is spending the days with his family at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy. He soon meets Oliver, a handsome doctoral student who’s working as an intern for Elio’s father. Amid the sun-drenched splendor of their surroundings, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will alter their lives forever.
The reviews I skimmed revealed that Oliver is 24, which caught my attention because, you know, it’s 2018. And:
Despite my deepening appreciation for out-of-the-box films, this is one I normally wouldn’t see. I still make decisions about how I spend my time and money, and art romance films just don’t check many boxes for me. But I kept thinking about this one, bothered by the possibility that Hollywood might be shamelessly celebrating the kind of story this seemed to be even while the crescendo of outrage over sexual harassment and abuse is still building. So today I went to find out for myself.
Frankly, it’s as bad as I feared it might be. A 24 year-old man begins and carries on a sexual affair with a 17 year-old boy. And that’s the story.
Before I address the obvious, let me add: This is not a deeply textured love story. The affair is characterized mostly by sexual desire, briefly repressed, then turned loose with no looking back. Age aside, to characterize it as a love story is to accept a relatively low definition of love, where sex takes the lead, emotional intimacy is secondary (at best), and concern for the best interests of the other is acknowledged only to be bulldozed by lust. The attempt to persuade the viewer of a deeper connection or care between the two is feeble and disingenuous. We’re never given any true reason to believe that the older Oliver’s attraction to the teenaged Elio runs deeper than sexual attraction. Indeed, Oliver ultimately confesses to Elio that he first attempted to make his interest known when he put his hands on Elio just a day or two after they met.
Let’s deal with the facts first. Though both Oliver and Elio are Americans, the movie takes place in Italy where the age of consent is 14. In much of the U.S., the age of consent is 16 or 17. In a number of states, including New York, Florida, and (ahem) California, the age of consent is 18.
So technically speaking, the relationship depicted in the movie isn’t illegal. But it’s a movie about a 24 year-old man in a sexual relationship with a boy who still has a year of high school left. It’s a movie about a sexual relationship that would be illegal in Hollywood.
I won’t belabor the details, but Oliver plans and initiates the first true sexual encounter between the two. Both before and after that event, Oliver engages in several weird psychological and sexual tests that anyone even a little familiar with predatory behavior would identify as manipulation and grooming. The two have sex multiple times before Oliver leaves Elio to sort out the aftermath of his affair with a grown man, a thing I suppose we’re meant to see as a normal way for Elio to spend his senior year of high school.
I also can’t shake a subplot in which Elio deals with his mounting sexual interest in Oliver by having sex (at least twice) with a teenaged girl who clearly cares for him and thinks her love is reciprocated. Once his relationship with Oliver turns physical, he ignores the girl completely since he no longer needs her body as an outlet for his pent up sexual energy. When she confronts him and asks, “I’m not your girl?” he simply shrugs. She leaves on her bicycle, devastated. This storyline finds “resolution” at the end of the movie when the girl, for no particular reason at all, tells Elio, “I’m not angry at you. Not at all. I love you.” And then asks, “We can be friends?”
So, to summarize: A 24 year-old man grooms and teases a 17 year-old boy. The 17 year-old boy uses a girl as an outlet for his sexual frustration until the 24 year-old man finally has sex with him, at which point he ghosts the girl. The consequence for the 17 year-old is a “no big deal, I’m not mad at you, let’s be friends” response from the girl whose body he used without any apparent remorse. The consequence for the grown man is a free pass on any emotional aftermath and a return to America and his heterosexual relationship. Cue three major-category Oscar nominations.
Frankly, I don’t care that the relationship depicted is legal in Italy or in Texas, and neither should anyone else. It’s creepy as hell to watch, not because it’s a relationship between two males, but because it’s painfully tone deaf in a moment when the culture in general and Hollywood in particular is facing such a messy reckoning over the willingness to blur sexual boundaries and overlook sexual power dynamics. How can everyone from the production house to the cast and crew to a long line of critics fail to see or refuse to acknowledge what a bad time it is to romanticize sex between an older, powerful man and a teenager — sex that would be prosecutable in Hollywood, Manhattan, or Miami?
Think I’m being dramatic? Ask yourself how the folks heaping praise on this movie will respond if tomorrow’s headline reads: “Kevin Spacey defends relationship with high school boyfriend, 17.”
I’ve paid close attention over the last several months as the downfall of Harvey Weinstein cascaded into a courageous movement of women—and some men—who have suffered and survived the painful wounds of sexual abuse and manipulation. I’m grateful for the unearthing of buried secrets as some of our crueler demons have been named and brought low. This is progress.
But we have a long way to go, and the collective cheers for Call Me By Your Name are a frustrating reminder that an unprincipled morality and selective outrage will not get us where we need to go. As long as we celebrate stories about grown-ups sexually “educating” teenagers as “coming of age love stories” and wink at depictions of teen boys using teen girls as “authentic tales of sexual awakening,” we are enabling a sexual ambiguity that empowers predatory behavior and shrugs at the real emotional and spiritual damage both kinds of stories produce.
But, you know, who wants to see that movie?