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Invisible fathers: Masculinity in Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name

Much has been made of mothers during this year’s awards season.

No, not Darren Aronofsky’s chaotic whirlwind of a horror movie, Mother! (which, somewhat undeservedly, has ended up with several Razzie noms.) Rather, Lady Bird, as well Best Picture nominees I, Tonya and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, have all seen critical attention fixed upon their depictions of mother-daughter relationships.

From the cruel bickering of Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird and her mother, Marion, to the downright abusive relationship between Tonya Harding and her foul-mouthed mother and mentor, LaVona, the 2018 awards season has been praised for its complex representations of women and their children.

However, less attention has been given to these films’ father figures. In both Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name, the protagonists’ fathers are sensitive and supportive, with the filmmakers affording them nuances rarely seen on-screen.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut follows the coming-of-age story of a Sacramento teenager, who naively dreams of attending a liberal arts college on the East Coast. Christine – who demands to be called Lady Bird – and her mother clash in fiery encounters over eggs and boyfriends and the future, which inevitably leads to guilt and regret. As the family’s financial state deteriorates, their relationship sours and the fissure between them widens.

Her father Larry, played by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, is laid off from his job and lapses into a bout of depression. He’s deeply affected by his inability to provide for his family and often sits in the periphery of the frame, playing solitaire on an early 00s computer or reading a newspaper, quietly drifting into despair.

Yet, he plays an integral role in the family’s dynamic. He’s the good cop to Marion’s curst-tongued matriarch, secretly giving Lady Bird money to fund her college tuition and assisting with her applications. His warm and sympathetic presence sweetens every scene he’s a part of – and often provides comic relief to the petty mother-daughter fights that surround him.

Lady Bird is completely unaware of her father’s deteriorating mental health, but the discovery of his anti-depressants leads her to re-evaluate their relationship. Discovering his condition allows her to mature, albeit subtly, and adds more layers to their affectionate bond.

Poised between two strong female characters, Larry often bridges the gap between them. It’s Larry who gives Lady Bird the letters Marion couldn’t bring herself to post, which ties the fraying strands of their relationship together and prompts Lady Bird’s apology in the film’s final scenes.

For most of the running time, Larry is absent. He looms in the background but finds subtle yet significant ways to pull his family together as they slowly drift apart. He brightens up every frame and gives Lady Bird hope, even as her dreams begin to deflate. His compassion and warmth quietly – and almost unnoticeably – lead to the film’s unsentimental but satisfying conclusion.

More has been said of Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Elio’s father in Call Me by Your Name. Besides the infamous peach scene, it’s Stuhlbarg’s final speech in the film’s third act that has affected audiences most strongly.

Although it would be an exaggeration to say that Mr Perlman plays a large role in the film’s plot, his presence haunts long after the credits roll. Instead, it’s Elio’s mother that is side-lined. She remains ignorant to Elio and Oliver’s affair, whilst Perlman easily recognises the codes of queer desire and acts upon them accordingly.

For a romance set in the 1980s when homosexual acts were still considered taboo, Stuhlbarg’s speech is surprisingly optimistic, but doesn’t feel exaggerated or contrived, either. “You had a beautiful friendship,” he tells Elio. “Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you.”

The speech is hopeful wish-fulfilment for young LGBTQ+ viewers yet to begin the ‘coming out’ process, who are still anxiously anticipating their father’s reactions. Stuhlbarg’s response is eloquent and insightful, hinting at Perlman’s queerness and revealing his envy of Elio and Oliver’s intimate bond.

But this doesn’t descend into jealousy – Elio’s father instead creates an environment of acceptance of love, carefully censoring his language so that neither character’s sexuality is pinpointed. Rather than being reductive, Perlman avoids labels and asks Elio to surrender to his emotions. It’s a touching and brave scene, anchored by a vulnerable display of masculinity.

Both Larry and Mr Perlman exist, for the most part, on the peripheries of their children’s lives. Love and understanding are communicated through subtle glances and gestures, as the fire of the central relationships take hold. However, their presence is deeply felt: Larry reunites mother and daughter and Perlman gently collapses Elio’s anxiety. Fathers are not absent, abusive, or ignorant – they quietly transmit their love and hold their families together.

Words by Liam Taft

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