If you’re a 17-year-old boy sorting out your sexuality, there has to be worse place to do it than the Northern Italian landscape of writer-director Luca Guadagnino’s latest drama, Call Me By Your Name. It’s 1983 and Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalame) is the classic case of what psychologists call a social introvert: While flirting with a French girl in the countryside lake, he charms with a bad-boy air — he’s capable of passing as an extrovert and much more — but he’s obviously much more in his element alone. The summer days find him composing piano concertos by the family’s pool or riding his bike through rural roads. His contradictions, broody but introspective, are seductive, much like the famed “bad boy” ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who was arguably the most prolific dancer of his generation but broke high-culture norms by tattooing his torso and making tabloids with his late-night party-boy antics.
But Elio’s thinly balanced act of outward poise and control is challenged when his father, a professor in Greco-Roman culture (Michael Stuhlbarg), invites a promising American graduate student to stay with the family. Oliver (Armie Hammer), blonde, tall, and with a swimmer’s physique, looks like he just walked out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad. Oliver and Elio are just on either side of that limbo pole we call maturity, but it’s clear why they’re drawn to each other. I mean, how often do you find your intellectual peer as a young person? Elio feigns boredom at small-town life yet seems perfectly at home plotting eighth notes on manuscript paper, while Oliver lays alongside reading a philosophy book aloud: “Is it better to speak or die,” the author ponders.
It’s what’s left unsaid that makes Luca Guadagnino’s script feel so authentic. In the vein of Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name explores learning to own one’s sexuality in a time when it was difficult — maybe even impossible — to fully do so. Indeed, even when the two characters are alone neither can come right out and say it. Guadaginino strikes up these beautiful juxtapositions with both characters: They’re both confident, even cocky in ordinary social settings, but when it comes to real intimacy, both tiptoe to the film’s ultimate conclusion. The result is not just one of the best LGBTQ+ films of recent years, but one of the best love stories of the the new millennium, period.
Chalame gives an Oscar-worthy performance, fluctuating with piercing authenticity between disaffected teen, and bare human, seen in all his vulnerabilities for the first time. There’s a particular scene where Elio masturbates into an apricot (it’s the Italian countryside, you work with what you have). Then, of course, because that’s exactly how timing works, Oliver shows up, feisty and ready to go down on him. When his secret is uncovered, Elio fluctuates between humiliation and exhilaration in the matter of seconds, bursting into tears, as young people overwhelmed with new experiences are apt to do. It’s a scene of equal emotion magnitude to the now-famous beach scene in 2016’s Moonlight.
Sufjan Stevens provides the film’s soundtrack with his perfect balance of bright keys that occasionally creep up on you with a certain intimacy. The vocals are kept to a minimum, but when Stevens’ airy legato voice breaks through, it’s a surprise, like going from the anthemic pulses of Canon in D to a quiet bridge, where suddenly your private secrets are on display for everyone to see. The score, along with the screenplay and lead performances are sure to draw Oscar attention.
What makes Call Be By Your Name stand out from the films it will be compared to (Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight) is Guadagnino’s play on juxtapositions, which go much deeper than merely an angsty teen with an introspective soul. Here we have a film depicting one character in sexually graphic scenes with both genders, and the mechanical lust-driven motions of seeing Elio have sex with a girl versus the vulnerable transparency of his ultimate relationship with Oliver has to be among the most powerful concepts here. It will have people of all sexualities, all ethnicities, all ages question: When am I just passing, and when am I truly living?
Although Elio and Oliver’s relationship is the anchor of the film, we’d be remiss to not mention the stunning supportive cast, especially Elio’s father played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who is the rare supportive parent, but even he suffers from the expectations of the time. In a layered monologue at the film’s conclusion, Mr. Perlman reassures Elio, while also not quite coming straight out and saying anything directly. It’s the best compliment to an audience when a film’s dialogue doesn’t need to explicitly tell you what it’s trying to say. Of course, in this case, form plays to message: It’s only a phenomenon of the last decade or so that public opinion as a whole has turned to majority support for same-sex marriage. So maybe that’s what makes the film’s title so evocative. It refers to a little game Elio and Oliver play, where amidst lovemaking they use each other’s name, as if to say, “I see you. And I’m seen by you.”