You Can Never Win or Lose if You Don't Run the Race
Confidence is a funny thing. It's a highly valued quality, and yet there's no consensus on what the right amount of confidence should be. Too little, and you're perceived as weak and passive. Too much, and you're perceived as cocky and self-absorbed.
Think of the most confident person you know, and try to recall how you felt about them when you first encountered each other. You probably bristled at their self-assurance, and how comfortable they were in every situation, like they belonged wherever they happened to be at the time. They had something you wanted, and maybe you hated them a little for it.
In the midst of awards season, much of the attention given to Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name will be focused on the moving, bittersweet speech given by main character Elio's tenderhearted (and remarkably progressive) father, who approves of Elio's passionate affair with an older man while lamenting his own lost youth. I find myself thinking more often about a scene that happens much earlier in the film, before Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his soon to be love interest, Oliver (Armie Hammer), acknowledge their attraction to each other, let alone act on it. Not long after Oliver's arrival at Elio's family villa in the northern Italian countryside, where he will spend part of the summer working as Elio's professor father's assistant, the two spend an evening at an outdoor disco. From a distance, Elio watches as Oliver suggestively dances with local girl Chiara to the campy Giorgio Moroder love song "Lady, Lady, Lady." Things seem to be heating up, and then the new wave marimba beat of the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" kick in, and Oliver breaks away from Chiara, joyously dancing alone to what is evidently his favorite song. Elio is initially bemused at Oliver's guileless flailing on the dance floor, then entranced.
Up to this point, the precocious Elio is alternately perplexed and annoyed by Oliver's easy confidence. It's not enough that he's handsome, he's also smart, charming, and immediately liked by everyone he meets, including Elio's parents and friends. Despite his apparent dedication to academics, Oliver has a laid back attitude towards life, as evidenced by his habit of excusing himself from meals and conversations with a curt "Later" and walking away. In the book, Elio, the epitome of the smart only child who anxiously bears the weight of his loving but high achieving parents' expectations, furiously rails at what he interprets as flippant rudeness on Oliver's part. In the movie, he cracks jokes about it, but it's obvious that Oliver's behavior has gotten under his skin. It's unclear if it bothers him because he thinks it's rude, or because he envies it, and sees something in Oliver that he wants. It becomes very clear when he watches Oliver dance.
Before Call Me By Your Name was even released into theaters, a clip of Armie Hammer dancing found its way onto social media. As what usually happens, it became the subject of mocking derision, evidently embarrassing Hammer so much that he left Twitter for a brief period, and later gave interviews claiming that the scene was more challenging to film than his erotically charged scenes with Chalamet. Watching the clip even separate of the movie, it's difficult to see what the fuss was about, or what Hammer found so humiliating about it. He's not a bad dancer, just a bit...ungainly, as one would expect, given his height. You don't get the impression that Oliver, his character, thinks he's a good dancer. In fact, it's more likely Oliver gives not one single damn whether he's a good dancer or not. He's in a reverie, blissfully unaware of how he looks to other people.
Of course, we know how these things are, and we know that Oliver should be concerned with how he looks, and he should be self-conscious, because a man who expresses any emotion beyond anger or sexual desire leaves himself open to judgment and scorn. There's no room to be ecstatic over a mere song when you're too worried about looking cool (and Oliver, in his baggy button down and crew socks with shorts, looks about as uncool as a human Ken doll can look). But he doesn't care. He is utterly caught in the moment, without a thought to spare for what anyone else must think.
Elio, very concerned with how he looks, watches Oliver for a while. You get the impression that Elio spends a lot of time at least acting like a coolly detached observer, watching life happen around him without actively being a part of it. Oliver isn't alone on the dance floor, it's full of people, dancing, laughing, none of them seeming concerned with anything else but that moment, and how the music makes them feel. Elio appears to be weighing his options. He can either continue standing on the shoreline, watching from a distance, or he can run in and meet the tide, letting every beautiful and painful moment wash over him.
In the end, he smiles, and joins Oliver on the dance floor, drawn in by the light of his confidence. If Oliver can feel that sure of and at ease with himself, then perhaps Elio will too.
Most of us don't make that same decision, however. When given the choice, we most often opt for safety over uncertainty. We take the job that offers the most stability, rather than the one we once fantasized about. We stay with the "right" person, rather than the one we think about when we can't sleep at night. We don't dance, because how would that look? And then we end up like Elio's father, looking back on lost opportunities to experience joy with both resignation, because that's how life works, and regret, because it shouldn't have to be that way.
Now, think again about the most confident person you know, now that you've known them for a while. What initially seemed like arrogance is now assurance. What initially seemed like smugness is now total knowledge and acceptance of who they are. You may still envy them from time to time, but that envy has now softened to something different, something that moves and maybe scares you sometimes. They still have something you want, but now maybe you're in love with them a little for it.