New York Film Festival Review: Call Me by Your Name

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What is it about the coming of age story that keeps storytellers coming back to try and make it their own? Unlike most genres, the entries here in the film medium prove not to be a dime a dozen in most cases, largely because the sheer emotionality of that time in our lives is undeniably universal. But few of them are wholly unique filmgoing experiences either. Call Me by Your Name is a meticulously constructed version with characters and relationships that some audiences might disapprove of (and to them I say, you don’t deserve good art anyway). It’s also a version that, besides being very well made and proudly waving the rainbow flag, does little to stick out in the crowd.

Based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name, the film follows Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the son of a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) living in the Italian countryside in 1983 who takes in an academic every summer to live with his family. In this chosen summer of Elio’s most hormonal phase of puberty, that student is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a tall, dark, and handsome figure with all the swagger, mystery, culture, and outward maturity of Don Draper in his prime, this writer assumes. Elio and Oliver’s connection begins as it always does, with a slight apprehension. They’re both seen kissing and dancing with women in the film’s early scenes, but eventually Elio takes a leap of faith and ends up lucking out.

That brings me to the film’s greatest strength: Elio and Chalamet’s performance as him. James Ivory’s script doesn’t hold back in what parts of Elio’s sexual awakening we’re going to experience with him. In all its awkwardness, we see a lot of Elio’s firsts, as well as some of the hilarious experiments every teenage boy tried down under, delivering a more intimate portrayal of this time in one’s life than the genre might be used to. It helps that Chalamet might just be the breakout performer of this awards season. He finds layers in Elio that reach beyond what most young actors are capable.

Hammer, meanwhile, provides him with a charming, charismatic romantic foil to play off of. But as a closeted grown man in the ‘80s, there’s a subtlety in the script that gives this character a journey all of his own, albeit one Hammer more hints at than actually explores.

And that’s where Call Me by Your Name comes up just a little short. There’s something just a bit off about how it draws it’s gay characters that rids the film of some of its authenticity. Like Brokeback Mountain before it, the film has the feeling of a gay story being told for the straight audience. These are characters who have to come to accept themselves, which is what I suppose a lot of audiences still see the community as. That’s fine, but amongst the LGBT films that have garnered serious awards attention these past several years, such as this one is already, how many of them show their queer characters actually living in their own acceptance, rather than learning not to hide? Queer cinema could really stand to broaden its portrayal of the stage of living it shows its characters in—or maybe mainstream audiences could show interest in different types of stories about gay characters.

Director Luca Guadagnino’s restrained visual aesthetic, while fully competent and occasionally interesting, doesn’t really offer any more layers than the story itself (unlike the neon bathed tone poem that was Moonlight). That is except for the final shot, which marks the most rewardingly emotional closer of any film this year, thanks to Guadagnino’s raw approach and Chalamet’s astounding performance.

But even when Call Me by Your Name is very, very good, which is often, you’re left waiting for it to make the leap to greatness. It comes so incredibly close, but never quite clears. That’s hardly a shame, it’s a well made, well told, well acted film that deserves to be seen not just because it features a community too little seen in cinema, but because it boasts universal themes about growing up and the nature of love. There’s just nothing revolutionary here. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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