Set during the summer of 1983, Call Me by Your Name is a slow-building, affecting look at a boy not only exploring his sexuality and experiencing first love, but ultimately having his most intimate self seen and affirmed.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a smart yet self-loathing 17-year-old living in Italy with his American professor father and French mother, who take in a 24-year-old American doctoral student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) for the summer. The two young men develop a rapport, which ultimately turns physical. The film notably doesn’t have an antagonist or a catastrophic event that forces them apart, other than the passing of that summer.
Due to his looks and physical presence, Hammer nails that entitled, All-American Winklevoss bravado he’s known for; but unlike some of his previous performances, that facade peels back here to reveal confusion, insecurity, and longing in his most complex work to date. However, his character doesn’t truly transcend the fact that he has the upper hand in the relationship or manage to earn being called “good,” despite Elio’s father definitively describing him as such.
Though the film provides space for Oliver’s character to develop, its primary focus is on Elio’s emotional journey. Its success firmly relies on the performance of relative newcomer Chalamet. The movie has little dialogue on the whole, so facial reactions and body language are the primary way in which Elio is able to communicate his inner life with others and the audience. The final scene is actually a long, uninterrupted tight shot of Elio’s face as he silently stares into the fire and processes the gamut of emotions he’s felt over the course of the summer. Chalamet is truly captivating in these last moments.
Elio is a teenage boy whose moods vacillate wildly, and with his unique mix of identities -- American, French, Italian, and Jewish -- he feels he has no one like him to confide in. Upon Oliver’s arrival, Elio finds a kindred spirit for the first time: Oliver is also a bookish, sexually undefined Jewish man, and he welcomes Elio’s outbursts of honesty. Their physical magnetism is palpable, as well as beautifully inelegant and tender. Their first time consummating their relationship reveals Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s gift for crafting sex scenes that are more about intimacy than skin, though the scene ending by jarringly panning to foliage seems like either lazy filmmaking or a way to avoid alienating wider audiences with explicit gay lovemaking. Guadagnino also applies restraint in handling the soon-to-be notorious peach scene from the novel; it could have easily come off as ridiculous, but instead feels sensual and poignant by using it as symbol for being understood and valued.
While the Italian scenery balances dreamy landscapes with visceral, sweaty bodies and runny eggs, the same balance is lacking in the plot. Elio and Oliver’s same-sex affair is allowed to exist in a safe, sun-kissed bubble with very little political or cultural context. Oliver briefly mentions not crossing a line with Elio, but whether that line is based on his faith, ’80s American values, their age difference (which is never addressed), or something else is left unexplored. On Elio’s end, his hip, liberal-intellectual parents are almost impossibly encouraging of their young son’s relationship, causing the film to slip out of romantic realism and into idyllic fantasy.
Overall, this buzzed-about movie has flaws in its direction and character development, but any praise Hammer and Chalamet earn for their work is deserved. With its lush visuals, stirring soundtrack, and gripping performances, the film ultimately achieves its goal of illustrating the power of first love to shape you and allow you to discover yourself -- with enough relatability for the masses.