“Call Me by Your Name,” the new film by Luca Guadagnino, is a deftly directed, beautifully photographed, wonderfully acted master class in sexual predation and abuse.
The lush, dream-like movie chronicles a summer romance between 17-year-old Elio and his father’s hunky 24-year-old graduate assistant, Oliver. Although many reviewers touch on the problematic “age gap” between them, for the most part, they minimize those concerns and lavish praise on the movie. (“An erotic triumph,” says one; “a romantic marvel,” says another.)
But even the brief “age gap” caveats miss the point. “Call Me by Your Name” isn’t about an older man and a younger man. It falsely romanticizes an exploitative relationship between a grown man and a teenager. These manipulative relationships cause lasting damage, as I know from my own experience.
As a 15-year-old scholarship student starting at Choate Rosemary Hall in 1989, I liked to think of myself as an autonomous adult. But like Elio, sprawling across his parents’ laps on a rainy afternoon, I was not.
That first year at Choate, I met Angus Mairs, my math teacher and dorm adviser. We all went to Mr. Mairs for math help, but somehow “math help” turned into personal discussions. Mr. Mairs pried and probed into my personal details until I revealed to him that a family member had sexually abused me throughout my childhood. Instead of making a prompt report to Child Welfare, Mr. Mairs used that information to pose as my protector and savior.
Over and over, he would ask me, “What are you thinking about?” It might seem like an innocent question, but it wasn’t. He wanted access to my most personal thoughts and feelings — and if I wanted his approval, I had to hand them over.
It was a gut punch to watch Oliver and Elio have nearly the same exchange. When Elio refuses to tell Oliver what he is thinking about because “it’s private,” Oliver withdraws his approval. “I guess I’ll go hang out with your mom,” he says, and walks away.
When the school year was over, Mr. Mairs wrote me “love letters” and arranged to take me camping. We got lost and ended up in some general store in the middle of nowhere, him drinking a beer and me, now 16, sitting on his lap.
Later that night, I lost my virginity. When I crawled out of the tent the next morning, I looked at my legs and my arms. My skin, the moles on my legs, the hair on my arms, all looked the same, but somehow none of it felt like mine anymore. I told myself over and over that I was in complete control. That this was a choice that I was making. This was a story I held onto fiercely – even long after I had severed all ties with Mr. Mairs.
In actuality, like Elio, I was a lonely teenager who desperately wanted approval. Also like Elio, an adult who should have been a role model instead took me as a lover.
In real life and in the movie, these shouldn’t be thought of as sexy coming-of-age romances, deliciously painful trysts from which both partners emerge better for having known each other. When an adult grooms a teenager, and engages her or him in a sexual relationship, it’s neither romantic nor consensual. It left me shattered. For years I lived with intense shame, believing I was a bad person.
In the movie’s last scene, Elio and his parents are together for Hanukkah. The phone rings and it’s Oliver. They clearly haven’t spoken in a long time. Oliver has big news. He is getting married. The film ends with Elio crying. Oliver has moved on. His life continues without consequence. But as experts on this type of abuse will tell you, Elio is at the very beginning of a long struggle with the misery and the challenges that survivors inevitably face. A real-life Elio would most likely suffer from depression and perhaps even become suicidal.
This film has the potential to cause real harm by normalizing this kind of sexual predation. It could be particularly damaging for LGBT youth, who are already at a high risk for depression and suicide.
So no, “Call Me by Your Name” isn’t a radical, brilliant piece of art. We need to call it by its name. That name is abuse.
Cheyenne Montgomery lives in Portland, Ore., where she teaches high school biology and zoology and works to address educator sexual misconduct. She is writing a memoir.