Call Me By Your Name is a tender coming of age film that centers around 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a Jewish Italian-American boy who lives in northern Italy with his scholarly parents in 1983.
SPOILERS AHEAD. Like, seriously, a lot of them.
His father, an archeology professor, invites 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student, to edit his manuscript for the summer.
Elio and Oliver’s summer romance is brief but pushes Elio, and the viewer, through all the rush and heartbreak of first love. This film centers around relationships which shape us, no matter how fleeting they may be.
There is no shortage of beautiful cinematography in this film. Set in the summertime, the luscious greenery and long quiet shots across scenic northern Italy leave you feeling sun-kissed and warm even in the movie theater seat. Elio says, early on in the film, to Oliver that there is not much to do in the summer except swim in the river and wait for the summer to pass. With that in mind, time flows languidly with the help of classical piano music and lingering camera shots that allow moments to be uninterrupted at the swimming hole, while Elio is transcribing music, or while the pair drunkenly meanders through the streets spinning hand-in-hand. There is a carelessness that harkens back to being young that is both charming and precocious.
Elio is a gifted pianist, he is at least trilingual, he likes to read and you get the immediate impression he is an intelligent old soul. He is depicted as hanging out with kids his age but somehow is the odd man out. It is clear he is on the cusp of adulthood in many ways but has a gentle naivety to him that is shown in his shyness. He is no Holden Caulfield, but you feel his growing pains. When he gifts a book to his friend Marzia, who clearly likes (you know, like likes) him, the exchange is sweet. He averts his eyes, she kisses his cheek, then after a beat, he returns the same affection. Elio says it himself that he knows many things, but as for the things in life that matter, he is clueless. Oliver steps in to fill those social gaps.
Elio is polite and reserved which is a direct foil to Oliver who seems rude, flippant, almost dismissive from the way he chugs the apricot juice offered to him by Elio’s mother, or the unskilled way he attacks his soft-boiled eggs at breakfast, and perhaps most notedly in how he says, “later” when he leaves. At first, it is something Elio looks at with an almost-disdain, but it is clear his lust and admiration for Oliver grow as they spend more time together. Perhaps in a vain attempt to ignore his growing feelings for Oliver, Elio pursues Marzia and even loses his virginity to her. But it becomes clear that he cannot ignore Oliver’s presence. He almost becomes obsessed, in the sweet way everyone becomes obsessed with their first love, with Oliver. He writes about him, watches him as he thinks Oliver won’t notice and tells him his secrets.
This movie is written for intelligent people and is not apologetic for it. Elio’s family is well-to-do and they have an appreciation for all things scholarly. Conversations of art, etymology, and music are had without consideration for the lay-viewer, which I appreciated.
This film’s approach to the exploration of life and relationships told from the point of view of a kid too smart for his own good is touching and relatable. It made me cry. It made me want to watch it again because it felt like a cherished experience.
However, it has spawned a conversation about ethics.
Elio is just 17, to Oliver’s 24. The age of consent in Italy at the time, as it is now, was 14 years old. So, to be clear, nothing depicted in this film is illegal. The relationship is consensual and for all intents and purposes seems gentle and genuine.
That being said, it plays into a popular (and damaging) trope when depicting LGBTQ+ relationships in media; the older more experienced man leading the younger vulnerable kid, who in the closet, to sexual enlightenment. I think it’s important to point out that the author of this book is straight (as is the author of this article), so this relationship wasn’t written from a place of understanding or first-hand experience. It was written as a commentary on life and a coming of age plot device.
Elio and Oliver’s romance doesn’t play out in a way that feels predatory, but it is clear that Oliver is experienced and that Elio is not and there is a vulnerability that, if someone was so inclined to feel this way, could be seen as a younger kid being taken advantage of.
Elio’s own parents seem to approve of the relationship, sending them off together to Bergamo before Oliver has to return to America at the end of the summer. They spend three days there together and when Oliver leaves, Elio is heartbroken. He calls his mother from the train station in tears, one of the few reminders that Elio is indeed, still a kid. On the drive home his mother does not interrupt his tears, only reaches to tussle his hair affectionately in form of quiet acceptance that hurts in a unique way.
Elio’s parents see the bond that Elio and Oliver shared and recognize it as special because it truly was.
In a long monologue, Elio’s father urges his son to feel the pain of loss because connections as deep as his and Oliver’s do not come up in life often. Their acceptance of who he is without question makes you feel things.
The second problematic trope in this film comes at the end. Elio receives a call from Oliver who says he is engaged to a woman he had been seeing on and off for a couple of years. This ‘gay affair’ trope is also common and particularly unnecessary in this case. Oliver’s relationship with Elio was meant to show Elio heartbreak and the thrill of first love. Making their relationship a blip in Oliver’s otherwise heterosexual life trajectory is diminishing to a relationship that the movie spent 125 minutes trying to make you care about. It was annoying and boring. A sexual identity is not a plot device alone.
That being said, Timothée’s acting was incredible and impossible to deny. You were immediately endeared to Elio and invested in his plight. Timothée, as many articles and movie voices more qualified than mine have said, is someone to look out for. His mastery of emotions and adorable ticks breathed life into a character pulled from the pages of a book. Armie’s supporting role was nothing to turn your nose up at either. He was somehow compelling and borderline bothersome with his American bravado.
Overall, I really enjoyed this movie. Different people are going to get different things out of it and not everyone is going to take issue with some of the things others do.
Overall, I give it a four out of five stars.
Call Me By Your Name debuted on January 19 as a limited release and will be playing in Jacksonville until February 5. It is rated R.
Destiny Johnson is a digital journalist at First Coast News who enjoys popcorn.