Every year, a film or two make the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Best Picture Oscar nominees list. Just as routine it seems, we find a couple of the movies selected as the “year’s best” which do not quite live up to the highest achievement in filmmaking. For me, 2018’s Academy Award headscratchers are “The Post” and “Call Me by Your Name.” Both stories were watchable with stellar cast performances. Neither film, though, with a robust or spectacular new narrative to share with viewers.
Great storytelling and cinematography can overcome poor acting, but great acting and cinematography can’t overcome a bland story. “Call Me by Your Name” falls picturesquely into the latter category. Based on Andre Aciman’s romance novel by the same name, “Call Me by Your Name” takes us back to the summer of 1983, in the small Italian town of Lombardy.
Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in 2010’s “The Social Network,” portrays Oliver—a 30-something, American doctoral student interning in Italy for the father of 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet). Predictably, a seductive Oliver engages in a gay relationship with the somewhat confused, yet consensual, much younger Elio.
“Call Me by Your Name” has several redeeming film qualities, none more so than its exceptional ensemble highlighted by Chalamet and Hammer. Each delivers their best work seen to date. The most potent and memorable performance belongs to supporting cast member, Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio’s father and Oliver’s professor. Stuhlbarg’s acceptance and understanding of his son’s gay preference depicts both love and nurturing at just the right moments in the film.
Aside from the wonderful performances, the cinematography is the real star of “Call Me by Your Name.” Director Luca Guadaguino proudly and effectively displays 17th century Italy, underscoring the romantic setting that fosters the Elio and Oliver’s relationship. Between the bike rides through the tiny city and shoreline postcard views, every moment of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s 35-mm film jumps out to the audience.
The film’s drawbacks include a predictive plot and slow pace. It’s also a seduction story told too many times to count. The real-life nine-year age difference between Chamalet and Hammer looks nearly twice that span, to the point of almost awkwardness. A similar uneasiness to that found on front pages of U.S. newspapers highlighting the arrests of teachers having sex with their underage students. That tightrope, which this film bravely walks, is also its most refreshing quality: An older gay man helping a young teenager struggle through his own emotions and feelings. In the end, no one explains it better than a father who deeply loves his son.
With four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Chalamet), we’ll see how this romantic tale fares against heavy favorites “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water” next month.