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Coming-of-age love story ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a rare treasure

By Steve Persall
Published: January 16, 2018
Armie Hammer in a scene from "Call Me By Your Name." (Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

Another young man’s summer he’ll never forget is the core of Call Me By Your Name, a movie to likewise treasure. Luca Guadagnino’s coming out-of-age drama is a rare exception to familiar romantic rules.

This film’s same-sex summer fling shared by a teenage prodigy and post-grad student is romance by means of intelligence, both shared and artistically expressed. Movies don’t usually sound this smart, or look this minutely picturesque, in 1980’s period and seemingly every leaf of its Northern Italy setting.

Call Me By Your Name makes eyes and ears swoon, so the heart has little choice but to follow. It’s a movie one wishes to live in, speaking the way these characters do. The screenplay by James Ivory, 89, bears the unhurried imprint of his pinnacle works with Ismail Merchant; The Remains of the Day, A Room with a View and especially 1987’s Maurice, a landmark of gay cinema.

Thirty years later, post-Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name is afforded more daring in its relationship between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), 24, who’s interning for Elio’s professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg), documenting artifacts. Elio is bright, multilingual, a talented musician and his father’s match in linguistic riddles.

His relationship with Oliver begins conflicted, a stranger bestowed the teen’s bedroom, both American, Jewish and intelligent. Elio gravitates to this lusty intruder, introduces his friends including the one with benefits, Marzia (Esther Garrel). Guadagnino luxuriates in their bonding, the nightclubs and swimming holes, usually with others but eventually alone.

Elio makes the first hesitant moves, which bears mentioning only because the age difference has been questioned in the allegation wakes of Kevin Spacey and Roy Moore. Italy’s age of consent then and now is 14. Casting may be a factor of discomfort; neither Chalamet, 21, nor Hammer, 31, look as young or old as they’re portraying. There is no predatory nature to Call Me By Your Name, only human nature, at times boldly expressed. Elio’s sexual curiosity drives Guadagnino’s passion; the teen’s experiment with a morning-after peach conveys both.

Praise heaped on Chalamet’s performance since Sundance, 2017 made me dubious going in. Nobody can be that good this quick, right? Yes, Chalamet can. His Elio is knowingly gifted, unsheathing talent only when he feels like it. Even so, romance is rough draft stuff at his age. Chalamet is a fairly impassive presence, yet each emotional notes rings clear.

Call Me By Your Name concludes with two remarkable scenes, first at a crucial point in Elio and Oliver’s relationship, when the teen’s father shares his opinion. Ivory hands Stuhlbarg a soliloquy for which actors would kill, a hyper-literate expression of understanding and candor the son doesn’t expect. Neither do we, after too many gay-themed films relying on tension from disapproving parents.

The other scene is practically wordless, just Chalamet in closeup for nearly two minutes, his gaze into a fireplace slowly reflecting what a turning point summer still means and always will. Call it what you want but this movie is an instantly fond memory.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.