It’s not easy to discovery yourself, and part of that path of self-discovery is the first love of your life. Often, movies that tackle this aspect of coming-of-age, especially when dealing with homosexual relationships, lean heavily on the forbidden aspects complete with weepy speeches punctuated with a line like, “I want to love you but I can’t!” In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman, none of that happens. It’s a sun-soaked film in the Italian countryside where two young men absorb the sights, sounds, and flavors of the summer while finding a romance neither expected. Call Me by Your Name purposefully meanders about the countryside of its setting, allowing the audience to absorb what the characters are experiencing before guiding the audience to a powerfully emotional conclusion that still eschews generic dramatic expectations.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a young man living with his parents in the north of Italy in 1983. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor studying Roman history and his mother Annella (Amira Casar), a translator. The household is welcoming in a graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), into their home for a few months while he works on completing his doctorate. Elio is a talented musician and lives a fairly bohemian lifestyle for a teen, playing music, reading in the warm sun, swimming in the nearby river, and flirting with Marzia (Esther Garrel), a young French girl. The brash and cocky Oliver rubs Elio the wrong way at first, the young man taking exception to manner with which the houseguest says “Later” as a goodbye. As the days and weeks pass, Oliver and Elio grow closer and closer, at first as friend before that blossoms into a secret romance.
Anyone who saw Timothée Chalamet in last year’s Miss Stevens knew that this young man was destined to be a star, and his performance as Elio further cements his growing reputation as an astounding actor. Within his performance Chalamet captures so many aspects of an uncertain youth. He’s standoffish towards Oliver almost as he’s that schoolyard boy bullying the young woman he has a crush on. At the same time, though, Elio is also fooling around with Marzia and that creates further internal conflict in the character that Chalamet is able to bring to the screen often without uttering a single word. Opposite Chalamet, Armie Hammer continues to find his groove as a movie star. I’ll admit, I was never a believer in Hammer but his past couple performances have the actor finding a charisma and confidence that has fully won me over. Oliver is a cool cat of a character, and Hammer brings such life to his performance that you can understand Elio’s infatuation.
The combination of the two stellar leading performances are buoyed by the script by James Ivory and the warm direction of Guadagnino. The film is filled with warmth and empathy for its characters, taking us into the internal workings of them without voiceover narration or obvious, leaden dialogue – it’s just all before your eyes. That warmth and empathy culminates in powerful conclusion featuring a moving speech by Michael Stuhlbarg and punctuated by a majestic final shot that perfectly mixes sadness and optimism. Admittedly, I wasn’t fully rapt with everything in Call Me by Your Name but the final act of the film brings everything full circle with some truly touching, tender, and emotionally honest moments.
Following up last year’s A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino further builds his reputation as warm, sensuous filmmaker. Call Me by Your Name is certainly going to get a lot of awards consideration this year for its director and two stars (I think it’s impossible to ascribe supporting actor status to either, much like Carol). Here is a film that shuns conventions expected in coming-of-age stories and romances but never at the expense of universal emotions felt by anyone who has ever been in love. It’s a delicate balance that few films could possibly achieve.