It’s Italy in 1983. Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a highly regarded American professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture who summers with his wife Anella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) at their home in Northern Italy. It’s a tradition that every summer the family invites one of Professor Perlman’s grad students to spend the summer with them, and this year the student of choice is Oliver (Armie Hammer). The film opens with Oliver’s arrival and the story is of the events that take place over this particular summer focusing on the relationship between Elio and Oliver.
Call Me By Your Name is an unusual film in that there is no conflict in the film outside of some short-lived inner turmoil. Rather than conflict, Call Me By Your Name uses some nostalgia and some wish fulfillment to keep the audience’s attention. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as a mirror image of last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. Instead of an urban Florida setting in which a young black man comes to terms with his sexuality while also struggling with his life of poverty and absentee parents, Call Me By Your Name gives us an idyllic rural European setting in which a rich white young man with an incredibly intelligent and supportive family has to come to terms with his. Where in Moonlight we were transported to a rather dark world and experienced tragedy after tragedy in Chiron’s life until he finally found a way to escape through hardening himself and becoming a man he didn’t really want to be, Call Me By Your Name shows Elio in a world in which his biggest trouble is disappointing the girl who has fallen in love with him and wondering about the appropriateness of his feelings toward Oliver.
The scenery of the Northern Italy village is shot beautifully. Every single scene takes place either in a setting of small ancient buildings of spectacular architecture or a natural setting so empty of the trappings of society you could believe that no person had been in that locale for years. The director of cinematography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes his time with his camerawork using the slow pacing of the film’s story to allow himself time to revel in the beauty of his surroundings just as the characters in the film do.
The writing in Call Me By Your Name is borderline pretentious, and I have no doubt there are those who will say it crosses that line, with characters who are capable of gleefully discussing off the cuff the etymology of the word apricot, the reasoning behind decisions made by ancient Greek sculptors, and how a particular song would sound had it been composed by Bach vs Liszt. But, past just demonstrating how intelligent the characters in the film are, there is nothing about the dialogue in the film that is meant to be showy nor judgemental. Once we establish that these people are highly intelligent and sensitive, we really don’t get any more intellectual displays as once the intelligence of our characters is established the screenplay leaves those elements behind for the most part and focuses on the relationships between these people. These relationships are genuine if also idealized and it’s this factor that keeps me from calling this film pretentious and just an honest look at a very intelligent, very well to do group of people.
This honest portrayal obviously could not happen without strong performances, and Call Me By Your Name does give us those. I wouldn’t call any of the performances on display spectacular, but they are earnest and well thought out. I have to wonder that Armie Hammer isn’t a larger star than he is, as I have yet to see a performance from him that isn’t at least charismatic, and he is most certainly easy on the eyes where the camera is concerned, and the performance here is good enough that it could lead to the bigger and better things down the road he seems destined for. The rest of the cast is also captivating and in particular, the intensely vulnerable performances given by the younger cast members Timothee Chalamet and Esther Garrel as Elio’s best friend and maybe more Marzia make me hope we will see more from them in the future, as well.
Final verdict: Call Me By Your Name is one of the sweetest coming of age films I’ve seen. Its total lack of nearly any conflict works in this case due to its embrace of nostalgia, authenticity, and a true love for its characters and their experiences. Call Me By Your Name is not a film for everyone, as I believe it will be immensely boring for those not interested in romance nor coming of age films, but for those who don’t need tension in their drama every time Call Me By Your Name will plaster a huge smile on your face while simultaneously putting a lump in your throat with its entirely genuine, familiar, and yet still very personal tale of young love, friendship, and family.