Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
“Call Me by Your Name” is less an LGBTQ love story than a traditional summer romance story with two untraditional lovers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I believe movies should be open to integrating stories of underrepresented people, and not in ways that call those people out as exotic or unique. But 2016’s “Moonlight,” for instance—the first film focusing on an LGBTQ story to win Best Picture—was powerful because it examined the intersection of race and sexual orientation. “Call Me by Your Name” flirts with an interesting angle linking the protagonists’ closeted Judaism to their secret love affair, but it only ever scratches the surface of that subplot. Mostly, it’s about two new friends who find they have stronger feelings for one another. It’s a simple love story that has the attention of award-giving groups across the world mostly for one simple reason—the blossoming couple has two guys instead of one.
17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) lives with his extended family in their vacation home, in northern Italy. In the summer of 1983, a new intern shows up, a hunky 24-year-old American named Oliver (Armie Hammer). He is there to help Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an art professor, and he’ll live in their big home for a few months. Initially, Oliver acts like an older brother to Elio, mocking him constantly and one-upping him in order to gain the favor of Elio’s father. Elio is an immature, impressionable kid. He lays his head in his father’s lap as his mother reads children’s stories out loud. He’s reliant on the validation of his caring family unit. Oliver is a cocky new visitor who spends much of the movie belittling Elio, laughing at his naiveté. When their dynamic turns sexual, it might catch you off-guard. As much as you expect it to happen, knowing that the movie hinges on this turn of events, it comes as a surprise when their familial relationship turns suddenly intimate, and Elio is thrown into his first gay relationship with a man several years his senior.
Newcomer Timothée Chalamet can convey a spectrum of emotions without a sound. In a film as understated and quiet as “Call Me by Your Name,” that’s not only an asset but a necessity. Chalamet captures Elio’s innocence. In his eyes, you can sense the feelings one gets when they’re truly in love for the first time. Only a great performance could make me feel so strongly about the weak plot…without him, I wouldn’t have cared enough to pay attention. But Best Actor? I don’t see it. Not with exceptional performances from Gary Oldman and Denzel Washington in the mix. And while Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg provide good support (especially Stuhlbarg, in one pivotal scene), their performances have been lauded more than I’m comfortable with.
I would fight anyone who said this about “Moonlight” last year (because I think that succeeds on a number of cinematic levels), but it’s hard not to think that so much of the attention “Call Me by Your Name” has received hinges on the fact that it’s about a gay relationship. You can welcome, appreciate, and even thoroughly enjoy movies that center on underrepresented groups of people, without propping them up for awards they might not deserve. Just as you can agree that while “Wonder Woman” was the best DC superhero movie since Christopher Nolan stopped directing them, it doesn’t deserve a single award. It’s good in a different way. Anyway, that’s a bit off topic. But nobody can complain about northern Italy in the 1980s. The gorgeous scenery waiting around every turn certainly don’t hurt the film’s award prospects. Neither do the original songs from Sufjan Stevens that complement the Italian countryside views the songs play behind. But, in my opinion, “Call Me by Your Name” is a rather formulaic and sometimes off-putting love story, no matter how refreshing and important it is to see a gay relationship at its core.