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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME will catch you off guard



Romance films are a tricky thing to get right. I've said the same about horror films, and I think it's doubly true here. Littered with a landmine of tropes, cliches, and even unfair expectations (when we liken something to a Nicholas Sparks movie in my household, it's never a flattering comparison), the label itself almost feels like an obstacle to overcomeItalian writer-director Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, an adaptation of the novel by Andre Aciman, sidesteps all of that. It's a film composed of a series of small, often disarming moments that may leave you unprepared for the bruises that will stay with you after the credits roll.

Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age story featuring the summer romance between the 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and visiting grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio's life mostly looks like something out of a dream: he summers in Italy with his scholarly parents, eating (and sometimes doing other things to) fresh fruit off of the vine, reading, practicing music, and relaxing in the sun. Though the film is set in the 1980s, it's not what you'd expect; apparently the '80s in the Italian countryside was a more picturesque aesthetic than I'd have guessed (Hammer can even make awkwardly dancing to The Psychedelic Furs look great).


When Oliver first enters Elio's life, his presence feels mostly like an arrogant intrusion. He takes Elio's room, ignores invitations, and abruptly ends conversations by saying "Later" and walking away. This sets up an interesting, adversarial vibe between Elio and Oliver. That flirtatious rivalry simmers as the summer continues, and Elio begins to experience self-doubt, insecurity, and even disgust with himself for the more awkward of their interactions, which eventually begin to engender a romance between the two. 


A movie like this rests on the performance and chemistry of its leads, and both Hammer and Chalamet's performances are incredible. Chalamet in particular has a way of making himself seem and feel small and uneasy in the wake of Hammer's dominance, while taking on a completely different persona when trying to assert himself with ladies his own age, and yet another, and perhaps the most fragile temperament, when he is alone. 


The surprise performance of the film comes from Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio's father. Though his role is small, it's both exuberant and pivotal in setting Call Me By Your Name apart. Elio's relationship with his parents projects pure comfort. He's affectionate with them both, especially for a 17-year-old, and open about his feelings. While my biggest critique of the movie would be that it doesn't always feel like director Guadagnino is completely in command of the sexual beats of the story he's telling (for the most part, he is, but at the most intense moments the camera often pans away in a manner that feels out of sync with the incredibly intimate nature of the film), Guadagnino knows exactly how to infuse the paternal elements of this story. 


What I love most about Call Me By Your Name is the lack of judgement or even presumption of judgement by Elio's parents. It even feels, at times, like Elio's parents have a tinge of jealousy for his youth and openness. They aren't interested in sitting him down for An Important Talk about how he defines his sexuality, nor does Elio seek their approval. They simply discuss Elio's relationship for what it is and offer the wisdom and support they can. It's not a scene that mirrors reality for many, which is part of what makes it such a cathartic and even hopeful experience on screen. 


It's kind of extraordinary that a film about a multilingual 17-year-old with vast wealth, extremely liberated parents, and a guest like Armie Hammer lounging around in short shorts by his pool for the summer manages to feel so personal. But the energy of Call Me By Your Name is improvisational, inviting, and warm. It's easy to get drawn in by its promise of growth and acceptance in exchange for a little bit of pain. 




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