One of the films that united audiences at this year’s Sundance film festival was the steamy romance Call Me By Your Name. A movie so lush and full of life it quickly proved a forced to be reckoned with among the institution’s top awards.
It tells the simple story of a young boy’s first romantic encounter in the Italian countryside during the summer of 1983. This may sound conventional but the film’s execution is far from routine, making it stand out as a unique and must-see story.
The film’s director is Luca Guadagnino and while his resume is light (A Bigger Splash and I Am Love) he handles the juggling act of story and character like a pro.
We open in the aforementioned Italian summer where the ’80s fashions are hot (short shorts for men) and the music is even hotter (The Psychedelic Furs blast the soundtrack more than once). Seventeen year old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is a typical teenager, aimless and obsessed with sex. The local girl who has a not-so-subtle crush on him does what she can to get his attention but like most boys he is frozen in a rut of nerves and inexperience.
Elio’s father is the total opposite, outgoing, cultured and full of life. As played by character actor Michael Stuhlbarg he is an endearing man who at the beginning of the film has invited an American grad student to assist in his research. Armie Hammer plays the eager pupil Oliver and from his introduction it is obvious that he is meant to shake up this family in unexpected ways.
But instead of quickly bonding with the father, which is what most films would do, Oliver forms a natural connection to the younger Elio who shows him around town and piques his curiosity. The closer they become the more their dynamic shifts and those scenes of slow build-up and quiet seduction between the two boys are at the heart of the film.
Guadagnino takes his time shifting the power play from one character to another, in an earlier scene Oliver nonchalantly takes off his shirt to reveal a statuesque body and in another Elio teases his prey while playing an important melody on the piano. When the mental tennis match reaches its natural climax it feels earned and embraces the story of two people genuinely falling for each other.
Call Me by Your Name was adapted from the Andre Aciman novel of the same name and while it showcases two men in a romantic story it should not be limited to gay themes or features. The detail and care Guadagnino has given the film transcends those boundaries and tells a universal tale, one that is real and from the heart. Chalamet holds the movie together as the younger Elio and he is a revelation. His ability to evoke innocence and false confidence (sometimes in the same scene) is breathtaking.
Likewise Armie Hammer, who is sometimes handicapped by his looks, is able to make those weaknesses a major strength here. He proves that he is not Brendan Fraser 2.0 but something much greater and deeper than that.
Finally there is Michael Stuhlbarg who has a smaller role as the father but practically steals the movie in the last third. He goes from an interesting side character to a shockingly compassionate father, and in one pivotal scene reacts to his son the way all children should be loved. Stuhlbarg’s final monologue reveals so much hidden meaning in his character that grown men and women were audibly weeping at the film’s premiere. Call Me By Your Name wasn’t just the best movie at Sundance but it’s also one of the best movies of the year, period. If this is the kind of film we are getting this early in the year it is going to be an amazing few months for moviegoers.
Call Me By Your Name will be released in 2017.