Parenting – good or bad, present or not – permeates all lives. Children’s worlds are built on the foundations of the early teachings of mothers, fathers, and carers. Even when its effects move to the fringes, the presence of those who birthed or raised us is continually felt.
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project – two of the finest films of the year – are tied together by this thread. Through the lens of their protagonists’ experience with their parents, the films speak to each other about privilege and its influence on how someone can hope to raise their child.
CMBYN is bathed in privilege – the comfort, opulence, and expanse of free time it opens you up to. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) wrestles with the oncoming of adulthood, and a burgeoning attraction to Armie Hammer’s seraphic Oliver, against this backdrop of comfort and nurturing.
His parents, played beautifully by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar, are thoughtful, supportive academics. The film is laced with moments of familial unity between the heartache – Elio is repeatedly reminded he can talk to them about anything, and the couple’s liberalism is a refreshing change of pace from the prejudice gay characters typically confront in these sorts of stories.
It all culminates in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent memory – a tender one-to-one between Elio and his father at the end of the film where parent implores child not to bury his pain, or else risk purging all emotion. Poetic and intimate, it’s a beautiful display of parental understanding and unconditional love.
It is, of course, all coming from a place of social advantage. That’s not to devalue the power of the film’s message at all, but the Perlman family and their peers enjoy a life of little worry about their finances, health, or safety.
“I think this is a family movie,” Guadagnino told a Q&A at TIFF. “It’s about the invisible bonds that create the people we are, and how the transmission of emotions and knowledge, and the capacity of compassion between generations and people, transform people for the best. It’s utopic, maybe, but why not?”
This utopia gives the Perlmans the freedom to focus on affairs of the heart in a way that infant Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her transient mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) cannot in The Florida Project.
Living at the pitch black bottom of the societal ladder in a dilapidated motel on the fringes of luxuriant Disney World, mother and daughter have less abstract concerns driving their stories – the next meal, this week’s rent, the ever-looming threat of social services. It would be untoward to place blame directly on Moonee’s antisocial mother, but Halley is anything but a model parent. Selfish, foul-mouthed, ignorant, and horrifyingly laissez-faire with her six-year-old, Halley is a hard character to stomach.
But what carries the bulk of the film is the inextricable bond between the pair. Halley is neglecting of Moonee, but never abusive or disparaging. In a twisted way, she supports her daughter’s freedom to play wherever she wants, swindle tourists whenever she likes, and eat whatever junk food she feels like. She also slowly allows her own dignity to give way to keep them indoors – dancing in seedy strip bars and soliciting johns while Moonee is in the bath.
There’s an emotional understanding between the two, there’s banter that only relatives can enjoy, and – in the final stretch – there’s desperation to stay together no matter what. They don’t get to enjoy complex discussions about love, poetry and ancient Roman statues like Elio and his family, but something equally complex is shared between them and remains unspoken as other problems take precedent.
In spite of their stark differences, this common thread between CMBYN and The Florida Project lends the films well to back-to-back viewing. They come from starkly different places in the world – Guadagnino lets the beauty of northern Italy speak for itself largely, while Baker uses every trick in the book to wrench colour and wonder from the arse end of the U.S. – but their conversation about the influence of parents and privilege is of undeniable value.