One of the best tributes given to Timothee Chalamet, the 22-year-old co-star of Call Me By Your Name, is that critics are unable to define Elio, the 17-year-old character Chalamet plays. Elio Perlman is not a jock, although he loves swimming and dancing. He reads books and composes music, but he’s too athletic and sexy to be a classic nerd. He’s polite and respectful of elders—except when he argues back and imitates Oliver (Armie Hammer), the older man he falls in love with, to his face. Directed by Italian Luca Guadagnino and set in 1983, Call Me By Your Name allows characters to interact and a summer to unfold without iPhones or computers.
Elio, in short, is a teenager, and teenagers are mercurial chameleons. Chalamet’s Elio is the first teen character on film or TV I can recall capturing that quality so well. In the space of 10 minutes Elio can play Bach on the piano, lust after the male boarder staying with his family in Italy for the summer, contemplate the night sky outside his window, be bored, say something sarcastic, cry with insecurity, and race across town on his bike to meet a girl who promised him sex. He does all this while retaining a kind of awkward grace that avoids the studied hyperactivity of teen portrayals going back to John Hughes. Chalamet doesn’t seem to be acting at all.
Watching Call Me By Your Name I felt triggered, but in a good way. Here’s a film that’s a mirror of my own adolescence, the only difference is that Elio is bisexual and I’m straight. My father was a writer for National Geographic, and I was a senior in high school in Maryland, Elio’s age, in 1983, when the film is set. I went to an all-boys school, and the Jesuits who taught us there encouraged us to be Renaissance men as well as, as the school motto goes, “Men for Others.”
It was not unusual for a jock to talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald, or for a young actor or introverted yearbook artist to be decent at sports and like rap. One of the biggest jocks in the school, and a guy who’d become a federal judge, was a Who fanatic and could speak and read Latin fluently. I was raised on classic literature, science fiction movies, The Phillips Gallery of Art, Nat Geo articles and photography, Latin, the Washington Redskins, Playboy, the Catholic Church, rock ‘n’ roll, Budweiser, mini-bikes, and Marlboros. I helped start an underground newspaper and played on the football and baseball teams. Most of the guys I knew were also some combination of habits and personalities. During the scene in Call Me By Your Name when a philology debate breaks out between Latin and Greek, I was back in my father’s office in 1983.
This is what Chalamet perfectly captures—that kids are more than one thing. When Oliver asks Elio to go into town with him to pick something up, Elio does something that might seem out of character—he sarcastically imitates Oliver, a man Elio actually admires. It’s a perfect adolescent moment—Elio does it just for the hell of it, to tweak Oliver. Were this an American film or sitcom, the snottiness would become central to Elio’s character. He’d be the mocking hipster archetype, one of the gang on Friends, or a villain to be challenged by the nerd crew on the Big Bang Theory.
However, Elio’s mockery is fleeting, quickly replaced by lust, boredom, reading, and bike riding. While rightly considered a film with gay themes, Call Me By Your Name features a protagonist also driven by potent desire for a girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel), who’s not treated as a false choice and mistake, as is the case with the angry and shrieking females in Brokeback Mountain, but as a necessary chapter in Elio’s self-discovery—a real person, and someone whom Elio stays friends with.
How refreshing that director Guadagnino let Chalamet inhabit Elio with what I’m sure was minimal guidance. It’s unlikely that an American director would do the same.