It’s so dangerous to have high expectations. As a critic, I have the privilege to see films earlier than the general public on most occasions, which allows me to avoid the never-ending hype train that can sway opinion whether intended or not. But film festivals, especially high profile ones like Sundance, Cannes or Toronto, carry their own special brand of hype, a mix of industry professionals, critics and film enthusiasts without an embargo to worry about able to control the narrative for months at a time until the film begins its theatrical release. We heard quite a bit of hype coming out of Sundance this year, some lasting, some fleeting. But in the case of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, the praise has been effusive from Sundance right through Berlin through Toronto right up to its limited release at the end of November. That sort of build-up has the potential to backfire in all sorts of ways, be it the need to overcome the belief that the film will be the second coming of the divine, or the skepticism that it couldn’t possibly as good as everyone has been saying for the last ten months. All you can do is try your best to leave those thoughts at the door and reconcile with things when you emerge on the other side.
I say to you now: Call Me By Your Name is equal to its hype.
It’s the story of Elio (Timothee Chalamet), the son of a respected Archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who spends his summers in a quaint, idyllic Italian town that mostly clears out during the offseason. Each year, his father employs a graduate student to help him catalogue his collection, and in the summer of 1983, that assistant is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a confident, freewheeling American who throws Elio’s fragile world into chaos. The 17 year old suddenly finds himself forced to confront confused feelings between local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel) and Oliver, who seems to show interest in Elio from time to time...until he doesn’t. As Elio becomes bolder in demonstrating his affections, an illicit romance forms, certain to change his outlook on life forever.
There’s a familiarity to the relationship that blossoms between Elio and Oliver. It’s awkward at first, with Oliver sending all sorts of signals the young, impressionable Elio seems thoroughly inept at dealing with and diagnosing. But when they do get close, Oliver is just as likely to disappear out of nowhere with a casual, flippant “later.” He makes sense as an object of desire, older and more experienced (and seemingly carved from granite) in the workings of the world. But he has a playful side too, one that manifests over an unceasing desire to drop everything and dance enthusiastically whenever he hears “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs. He casually flirts with the local girls too, making Elio entirely ill-equipped at figuring out what the hell is going on with this new force in his life. It’s the sort of companionship just about anyone can relate to from their adolescence, over-analyzing every interaction to probe for shifting meaning, careening back and forth from requited to unrequited love and lust. Guadagnino lets these scenes play out with patience, matching the laconic feel of their day to day lives. The score, a cobbling together of piano pieces that mimic and reinforce Elio’s skill on the ivories, fits well, but Guadagnino is just as happy to let scenes play out in silence if it fits the mood.
All of this rests on the slight shoulders of young Timothee Chalamet, an actor who has grown in stature since breaking out in 2014 with roles in Interstellar and Men, Women and Children. His slim, wiry frame makes him look tiny next to the likes of Armie Hammer, barely enough room to contain the whirlwind of emotions that comes with coming of age as he reckons with his budding sexuality. There’s a coolness to him as he lounges in the sun reading books and transcribing piano pieces, but when confronted with Oliver’s raw magnetism, the facade cracks and he’s just a bumbling, anxious 17 year old kid. There’s no hardship here; the culture of Call Me By Your Name is one of idyllic bohemian academic relaxation. No one works, not really, spending their days bicycling and swimming across the Italian countryside. So Chalamet must have all of these thoughts play across his face, be they pensive or joyful or pained. It’s the sort of performance movies exist to present, a career-defining turn at 21 for an actor with a white hot future (his other major role of 2017 is in Lady Bird, giving him the distinction of starring in quite possibly the two most celebrated films of the year). Hammer gets to be more playful, with confidence that seeps out of every pore as he immediately commands every room and conversation he enters. He has plenty of his own internal conflict to contend with, and the ease of their growing romance is both familiar and infectious. It’s a wonder that Hammer never became the Hollywood mainstay he so easily could be (and maybe he would be if George Miller’s Justice League ever happened or The Lone Ranger turned out differently), but if the lack of box office success allows him to continue to make movies like this, we’re all the better for it.
Guadagnino is the sort of director who has no problems taking his time, and at two hours and fifteen minutes, Call Me By Your Name has plenty of room to unfold. There are a few false finishes in the third act that threaten to upset the delicate balance of tone, but the script, from James Ivory of Merchant/Ivory fame, always givens us a reason to keep things going. Even the end credits are used to keep the story going, and nary a frame is wasted in the grand scheme of things. There’s only one real moment that doesn’t quite hit the mark, a long speech from Stuhlbarg near the film’s end that’s written and performed well, but feels a little too direct with its reinforcement of the central themes they want to get across. It’s the one bit of artifice in a film otherwise devoid of it. That ends up being little more than a speed bump in an otherwise immaculate, tender and beautifully realized romance. Call Me By Your Name doesn’t have a high concept or a gimmick. But it doesn’t need any of these things. All it really needs is Chalamet and Hammer finding affection in gorgeous Italy. That’s more than enough.