After a handful of my friends had been badgering me to see it for weeks, I finally watched “Call Me by Your Name” over winter break. To my surprise, I walked out of the film feeling disappointed.
The movie centers around 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who falls in love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old PhD student studying with Elio’s professor father for a summer in the 1980s. As the two young men flit through the picturesque northern Italian landscape, have their respective flings with women, and take advantage of the lazy days of summer, they begin to—ever so subtly—take note of each other.
My dislike for the movie came from my lack of ability to empathize with Elio, and the effortlessness with which he embraces his queer identity. Elio doesn’t seem to experience any anxieties about discovering his attraction to men, which invalidates the inner strife that many queer people feel when reckoning with their sexuality. He doesn’t so much as miss a beat before acting on these feelings of attraction and hardly worries about coming out to his family and friends.
When I first realized that I was attracted to someone of the same gender, I was mentally shaken. It took me a long time to process these emotions, much less act on them. When I first decided to act on such feelings with another boy, my next internal crisis was equally, if not more intense. What would he think of me? Maybe I had been picking up the wrong signals and he only wanted to be my friend? Lastly, dealing with how to bring up this part of my identity with my family caused significant anguish.
I left the movie feeling unsettled. I was then surprised that just five days later, watching the Academy Award nominations, I still hoped for “Call Me by Your Name” to take home big wins. I was devastated that neither Armie Hammer nor Michael Stuhlbarg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and only then realized that the reason I wanted the film to secure the nominations was because, despite my disappointment with it, I supported the expanded representation of LGBTQ stories in the media.
My issue lies in that I should not have to grapple with disliking a movie but still wanting it to succeed simply because it’s the only form of representation I have. Thinking back to why I didn’t enjoy the movie in the first place, it seems that the film is hardly an ideal form of representation. Part of why I didn’t like the movie came from what I perceived as the sterilization of a queer relationship, and I don’t necessarily want others to view this narrative as a model for how most queer relationships start and end. It certainly is not like any that I’ve ever had.
Every year, I watch a multitude of movies that each center on heterosexual romantic relationships. Not all of these movies are enjoyable, and certainly, not all are Oscar contenders. However, in my eyes, these movies are allowed to flop at the box-office or serve as film’s answer to a beach-read (not critically acclaimed but fun to watch nonetheless) without letting down a group of people they seek to represent. They do not have to serve the role as the one movie each year that attempts to represent an entire demographic of people whose stories are not usually told.
Because there are so many iterations of heterosexual relationships depicted onscreen each year, if someone were upset at how a certain movie portrayed a relationship, there would be plenty more to choose from. But the queer community doesn’t react to each movie centered on a queer relationship as how they would to, say, “Moonlight” or “Carol.” These films seem to be chosen, every awards season, as the one film that discusses the queer experience. With each of these films, I’ve ultimately felt pressured to support the movie, regardless of my personal opinions on it, simply because I know I am expected to be happy that queer people are being represented in Hollywood at all.
There were plenty of LGBTQ people who saw “Call Me by Your Name” and loved it, and I’m thrilled that they feel there’s a movie that represents them and has been widely accepted by the greater arbiters of cinematic quality. But for the LGBTQ-identifying people who don’t particularly like the movie, we either support the movie regardless of our opinions or go through another awards circuit with no stories like ours to root for.
There need to be more queer writers, directors, actors, and producers to tell the stories of historically marginalized people. Moreover, there needs to be a spectrum of stories told so that there is not so much pressure on each LGBTQ-focused film to encompass all queer experiences. While I disliked the movie because of how I could not relate to either Elio or Oliver’s experience, the film was undoubtedly inaccessible to queer trans people of color and poor queer people who can’t participate in the white privilege that Elio’s family had.
I stand in a position of privilege in that, as a cisgender white male, there is still a myriad of shows and movies that I can watch to find people like me, but my response to “Call Me by Your Name” made me more clearly understand issues of representation. There should be movies about Black queer people, disabled queer people, economically disadvantaged queer people, and the list goes on. To call this film a queer film is not fair to the greater majority of the queer community.
In her collection of essays, “Bad Feminist,” Roxane Gay argues a similar point with respect to the HBO show “Girls.” Gay discusses the way the show neglects to portray any characters of color with the same depth and complexity it portrays white characters. However, she concedes that the show does take a large step in advancing the representation of women-centric stories on television, a feat which should be celebrated. She concludes that in order to praise “Girls” for its accomplishments and still feel adequate about representation on television, there ought to be more examples of female representation created for television so that each attempt does not have to be all-encompassing. “Girls” can focus on four white women so long as we also make ample room for shows about women of color as well.
The same is true with regards to “Call Me by Your Name” in that we need to put more effort into representing the full spectrum of queer experiences. If we don’t, each attempt in portraying the queer community projects on to the community as a whole, which just makes people feel conflicted about whether or not to endorse it.
Cole Land can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.