In the early nineteen-eighties, a 17-year-old named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is, by many measures, enjoying a charmed life. He spends summers in a family house in Italy, where his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) goes to be closer to a recent antiquity find. He reads erudite literature, he plays music, he lounges in the sun. Perhaps the only thing that could make the situation better would be the chance to put on his coolest Talking Heads t-shirt and make out with a beefcake intellectual, maybe while the Psychedelic Furs played in the background. Enter Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate assistant enlisted by his father.
With a screenplay by James Ivory (based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman), Call Me By Your Name is a marvelous mix of lyrical and pragmatic. In its depiction of a love affair between two young men — at a time when such encounters were still somewhere between gravely taboo and warmly accepted — the film is romantic without ever resorting to dewy-eyed sentiment. Instead, it operates with some of the sedate matter-of-factness that Ivory brought to his many period piece directorial efforts, but infused with an uncommon vein of passion. In a way that feels piercingly honest, the film depicts the ways in which come together, in fits and starts, eventually finding a connection — however fleeting — that feels startlingly inevitable.
Luca Guadagnino directs the film is gracious accordance with the material he’s been given. Although it is consistently lovely to look at (the cinematography is the handiwork of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom), Call Me By Your Name never degrades to mere travelogue, attempting to stir interest with little more than loving examination of the scenery. Instead, the Italian countryside and quaint towns provide a setting that is almost tactile in its familiarity. It enhances the sense of fully knowing who these people are, how they live, and what fuels their hearts. If the storytelling tempo sometimes lags a touch, it at least feels appropriate to the tender European charm of it all.
Much as the refined techniques of the filmmakers serve as an enticement, Call Me By Your Name is most elevated — becoming completely enveloping in its shimmering truth — by a pair of central performances. Stuhlbarg is marvelous as the father, inventively playing the character’s gently odd academic charm, which then serves to enhance a scene of heartrending sympathy and confession that arrives late in the film. Chalamet is even more impressive, interplaying Elio’s youthful impetuousness with an emerging maturity. Elio is equal fragile and forthright as he stakes out his identity on the cusp of adulthood, and Chalamet makes the contradictions work as a seamless whole. It’s transcendent acting.
Call Me By Your Name is lovely precisely because it doesn’t strain to reach that state. It is merely observant and honest, resolutely honoring the experiences it brings to the screen. Sometimes, it really is as simple as that.