Call Me By Your Name isn’t my kind of film, but I appreciate the fact that it exists. Indeed, the fact that it exists is what is most noteworthy about it. Historically speaking, positive depictions of gay relationships in cinema aren’t exactly commonplace and they’re rarely the central narrative focus. It seems that Moonlight winning Best Picture last year may have changed things. Call Me By Your Name clearly skated into the Best Picture category in the wake of it’s spiritual predecessor’s success, but aside from the superficial similarity of them both featuring romantic relationships between two men, these are very different films. Moonlight is about prejudice and the struggle of minorities against a judgmental society, but Call Me By Your Name eschews the big picture and instead looks inward, exploring the insecurities and doubts that accompany self-discovery.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17 year old Italian boy living in Northern Italy. His father is a professor who routinely takes on foreign PHD students as live-in proteges for Summer study abroad programs. Enter Oliver, an American student played by Armie Hammer, who you may remember as one of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Oliver’s presence in the house causes Elio to grapple with feelings he’s never before experienced, and the two young men slowly develop something a bit more than friendship.
The film allows the budding romance to flourish on-screen with the same sentiment one would expect from a heterosexual romance. And that is what is significant here. Rather than spend time on antagonistic external forces, the film instead creates a supportive, even idealistic environment for its characters to inhabit, then lets them explore it together. There’s beautiful scenery, cutesy moments, sex, competing romantic interests, all the tropes one would expect from a “normal” romance. Gender swap one character, and the film becomes entirely unremarkable. But give a minority group the same experience that mainstream audiences have enjoyed at the cinema since its inception? Now that is a remarkable thing.
Films like this often try to get others to empathize with the minority experience. Moonlight did it through suffering, but this film went about things very differently. By playing things straight (no pun intended), it allowed me to experience a film where I couldn’t relate to the characters on the screen. There was a lingering sense of disconnect that undercut the whole experience, a result of my inability to project myself into the scenes I was watching. How exhausting it must be for LGBT people to feel this way at every single movie. It is an ever present reminder that you are different and the world isn’t made for you.
How refreshing then it must be to watch a film that is made for you. While the romance itself may be presented with the same tropes as any other, its consequences are not. The film is not tone-deaf. The internal conflicts Elio must face are unique to the experience of gay youth.
What I find most ironic is that the very thing that got it nominated for Best Picture is exactly what will stop it from winning. Call Me By Your Name is too insular for its own good. This is an Italian production where 20% of the dialogue is spoken in Italian and it is made for a very specific audience. Few people have even heard of this movie and fewer still actually saw it. Moonlight may have won last year, but it had the political thrust of racial tensions behind it. That it also happened to be gay was incidental. No such force exists to propel Call Me By Your Name to the top spot. Much like its very existence, that it simply got nominated is what is noteworthy.