For days now, I’ve struggled to figure out where to begin in communicating my thoughts on Call Me by Your Name. It’s not as though there’s any shortage of things to laud about director Luca Guadagnino’s delivery to this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I could speak to no end about how he milks the film’s Northern Italian village setting not only for every last ounce of aesthetic beauty, but also for a warmth and spirit that’d cause envy from any of us confined to the margins of the real world. I could go on and on about the startling humanity conveyed through young star Timothée Chalamet's every verbal snap and abrupt corporeal whip. I could probably even manage a few hundred words on the sexual vivacity of the movie’s fruit spread. But these many willing prompts aside, my stunted progress in beginning this review derived from the challenge of articulating exactly what this film had to say to me.
Part of that difficulty is owed to the specificity of Call Me by Your Name’s message. That’s not to call it exclusive, as proved by post-viewing conversations with dozens of decidedly moved friends and fellow critics lucky enough to have seen the film at Sundance. Still, this generosity of reach is made something near miraculous given how acutely familiar the movie felt to my own personal emotional experience. Not only does Call Me by Your Name so vividly communicate ideas I’d never before seen executed on film, but that I’ve barely ever been able to put into words myself.
Much of this is carried out by way of the romance that blossoms between Elio (Chalamet), a winningly snide 17-year-old bookworm holed up in an early '80s Italian Riviera paradise with his American father and Italian mother, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), an archaeology student who drops in on the family to play their summertime houseguest and academic apprentice to Elio's professor pops (Michael Stuhlbarg).
This relationship, one the two young men can only deny for so long before breaching their respective emotional and hormonal breaking points, affords Elio his first great love story, complete with all the highs and lows innate to such a superlative. From longing to fulfillment and back again, Guadagnino renders every new moment for Elio and Oliver—every boyish flirtation or reluctant examination of a bare knee—the discovery of a lifetime. Between endeavors in withheld affection and mollified yearnings shared with Oliver, whom Hammer paints with two coats of cocksure only to peel them away in pieces, Elio finds more and more of himself and his own story.
But perhaps the most important chapters of Elio are told in his inevitable isolation. Elio discovers just as many questions in and beyond his new romance as he does answers. As succinctly in tune with the majesty of anguish as he is with that of elation, Guadagnino deals Elio’s confusion, his every mortifying inconsistency of heart and libido, those same allowances of empathy and beauty. What came, for me, of this union of Guadagnino's philocalist eye and Chalamet's vibrantly human form, of this devotion to Elio’s upending inability to write his own story, was the validation of one I knew all too well. One, though, that I’d never seen or heard told, and that I’m still not entirely sure I know how to tell. But here goes nothing.
We don’t see many movies that cap at confusion, that are satisfied to leave viewers treading without sight of either horizon. And because of that, those of us who spend our lives in this indefinable grey area—landing someplace between gay and straight, or sexually driven and asexual, or cis and trans, or male and female—may feel as though we’re coming up shy of otherwise obvious answers. Trust me on this: It’s very fucking frustrating.
But seeing in Elio this desperation for any shore to climb aboard, and hearing from Guadagnino that such is a pain as valid and romantic and beautiful as any the big screen is accustomed to spotlighting, felt like I was catching glimpse of what I’d always sought. Not just the validation, but the celebration of stories like mine: of people who can’t figure out who or what they’re supposed to like, date, sleep with, look like, call themselves, or be. People like me, who wear makeup and are attracted to everyone but go out with no one and haven’t figured out what pronouns to use. Frustrations will abound, of that I’m sure. But seeing my story onscreen—committed with the utmost beauty, humanity, and sexuality—is a big step in figuring out how to tell it myself.
Images: Sundance Institute
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.