There is no way I could begin a review of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name without owning up to my appreciation for I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, his two previous features. In those films, the Italian director explores love, personality and fame with a European flair that sometimes fails to engage American sensibilities. That could explain why this film, an Academy Award favorite during its festival run at Toronto, garnered a meager four nominations (Best Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Original Song).
In Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino partners with screenwriter James Ivory of Merchant Ivory fame (A Room With a View and The Remains of the Day), who adapts a novel by André Aciman that’s set in the 1980s in Northern Italy and details the lazy summer fling between the teenage boy Elio (Timothée Chalamet), on the cusp of manhood, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student/research assistant helping Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) work on an excavation of priceless and quite sensual artifacts.
As both a coming-of-age narrative and a tale of coming out, Guadagnino seals the film away in a bubble of sorts, removing it from parallels to the current mood and need to place it in our social discourse. The early 1980s period could have easily fallen into the trap of a pre-AIDS lens, but the Italian setting mutes such concerns to a large degree and the summertime vibe completes the effect, encasing the experiences of Elio and Oliver in amber.
We are allowed to sit back and watch as the bright and quite sensitive Elio passes time with his friends (swimming, biking and playing volleyball) in between practicing music and reading in solitude. He’s a mix of tossed-off adolescent angst and old-soul longing that probably works best on the page, but Chalamet looks exactly like a fictional creation with his dark wild curls, smoldering stare and rail-thin frame. And the arrival of Oliver, with the giant and quite gangly Hammer unfolding accordion-like out of a tiny car, triggers disdain and curiosity in Elio. He’s assuming Oliver will be just another ugly American, an outsized figure to be scorned and dismissed. But it’s their shared Jewish heritage that cracks open the door a bit.
Call Me By Your Name seems, simultaneously, like quintessential Oscar bait and far too esoteric an experience for voters and audiences alike. Guadagnino gives us a beautiful postcard — a “wish you were here” snapshot — with a laissez-faire attitude about sexuality that never questions itself. But what eases our concerns is the quiet presence of Stuhlbarg, an unheralded performer since the 2009 Coen brothers film A Serious Man, which I caught during my initial trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. I had the chance to sit across from him during roundtable interviews at the event and was intrigued by his unassuming demeanor. Stuhlbarg wasn’t averse to playing the publicity game, but he had little interest in giving us a show in that setting, just as here he doesn’t want to light up the screen with pyrotechnic acting displays.
You purchase the ticket for Call Me By Your Name for the sensual slow burn of a love story that develops between Elio and Oliver, captured against the gorgeous backdrop of Northern Italy, but you might find yourself moved to tears by the genuine appeal Stuhlbarg makes to his son when first love turns, as it must, to heartbreak. This educated and worldly man sits down with his son and schools him on the impact of love and longing, in an honest and explicit manner that lays bare all that Mahershala Ali’s Juan sought to impart to Alex Hibbert’s Little in the initial segment of last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight.
It was surprising, on the morning of the Oscar nominations, to not hear Stuhlbarg’s name in the Supporting Actor category. I was sure the Academy would recognize his serious turn here, a near-twin of Ali’s mesmerizing award-winning performance last year. But the argument is that a likely Stuhlbarg-Hammer logjam in the category prevented either actor from breaking into the final five.
In the end, awards don’t ever tell the full story, which leaves it up to audiences to ponder the reflection that Guadagnino presents. And we should call it by its true name and intention, for it is a narrative that reminds us how first love defines what it means to be human. (Now playing) (R) Grade: A