Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics)

Already being touted as this year’s Moonlight, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name premieres with the unfortunate timing of a major turning point in sexual politics. For those who are wary of this film’s portrayal of a romance between a man and an underage teenager, consider its characters and the period in which they live and see it for yourself.

During the summer of 1983, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student, arrives in a quiet northern Italian village to stay with an American expat professor of archaeology  and his family in their large manor. Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) will lend a hand in helping Oliver with his dissertation, in exchange for Oliver working as the professor’s assistant. A point of conflict comes, however, as the young scholar is placed in the room of Perlman’s 17-year-old son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who is then displaced to a smaller bedroom adjacent to the guest’s.

Elio develops an immediate aversion to Oliver (seven years his senior). He points out to his parents how rude and abrasive the American is (his major offense: saying “Later” whenever he exits). This only leads to his parents suggesting the two young men spend more time together. Oliver’s interest is piqued by the bookish and awkward Elio, and so he starts requesting his company on trips into town or to go swimming. As the film progresses, the two form a bond more like brothers than anything else: competitive and razzing. They also push each other to have more confidence in their own gifts—for Elio, his musical and social abilities (he’s a bit awkward); for Oliver, his outgoing personality may be overcompensating for feeling intellectual inferior in his field of study. Before long, one of them does indeed bite the bullet and confides that this attraction has gone beyond fraternal—but does the other feel the same way?

So, clearly the film comes at a time when there is a lot of action going on in sexual politics, and many media outlets are questioning the film’s portrayal of the borderline illicit love between Oliver and Elio. Hammer is in his 30s and Chalamet is in his 20s, but the characters they portray are supposed to be 24 and 17, respectively. While their relationship does not go against the Italian age of consent, some viewers may still raise their eyebrows. The film makes it abundantly clear that it is Elio, the younger, who is the aggressor, who makes the first and relentless subsequent advances toward Oliver. At first, Oliver refuses these overtures, even avoiding Elio for a matter of days, until he ultimately makes the decision to pursue a sexual relationship with the teen. The film asks viewers to simply bear witness.

The historical period and setting are key here. These two young men find each other in a time and place when it would have been difficult for either of them, regardless of age, to find other men to share this kind of bond (or women, as the film remains ambiguous over whether either of them is truly gay). Oliver’s initial reluctance is due to his conscience over Elio’s age, not to mention the conflict of Elio’s father being his mentor; he initially cuts off contact after Elio’s first, strong advances. Instead of focusing on Oliver’s dilemma during this time, instead we see the turmoil of Elio as he painstakingly writing drafts of notes to be left under Oliver’s door, pining for him to recognize the link the two share. Inevitably Oliver gives in, and a major factor into his line of thinking had to have been: What are the odds he will ever meet someone so much like himself? Elio’s parents, after all, seem to be encouraging of the relationship, coyly suggesting the two pair up at every given opportunity and eventually setting them off on a trip to Rome so the boys can be alone.

Call Me by Your Name is already being listed among the great queer films of recent memory: Brokeback Mountain, Carol, and Moonlight. Let us keep in mind that each is a period piece, featuring queer characters set against environments that are not tolerant of their way of life. A looming presence in this film is that both Oliver and Elio are Jewish, and 1983 was not that much far removed from the atrocities of the Holocaust, when Jews as well as homosexuals were persecuted. Oliver, in particular, bears a heavy burden over whether he can lead a life as a Jew and a gay man, while Elio, still not quite grown up, doesn’t necessarily understand the consequences.

While the automatic response is to compare this film to other queer films, I would posit that it has much more in common with the cult classics Harold and Maude and The Graduate, only if you were to vary the age and gender differences and transpose Harold into a relationship with Dustin Hoffman’s character from The Graduate. (How rich is that?) If Call Me by Your Name doesn’t win the hearts of audiences because of its unfortunate timing, then perhaps it will garner cult status further down the road.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by James Ivory, based on the novel by André Aciman
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Italy/France/Brazil/USA. 131 min. Rated R
With Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, and Victoire du Bois