Call Me By Your Name (Review)

I watched Call Me By Your Name tonight (a few months after most other people!). It looks very pretty, and certainly works as a very nice advertisement for Northern Italy, but I found it surprisingly disappointing and I didn’t manage to get emotionally involved in the story or empathising with the characters. This wasn’t helped by what seemed like a considerable amount of padding, and I wonder if it might have been better had it been twenty minutes shorter (it runs at two and a quarter hours).

The story about a seventeen year old (ish) teenager who begins a relationship with a research assistant who has come to live with his family for the summer to work with his father in Northern Italy is very slight and seems to go to all the various plot points that you might expect. I should also add that I know a number of research assistants and none of them are facing the prospect of eight weeks of sunning themselves in Italy! Perhaps they should complain.

Arnie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet do very well in their roles, with the latter no doubt destined for great things – and the fact that he makes you start to like a character who transcribes Schoenberg for fun gives an indication of his screen presence. But it is only in the last section of the film that he becomes that likeable, as it is that point he becomes vulnerable. Apparently, there will be a sequel, and may be even a long-running series about these characters, but I’m not going to get too excited.

The film gained some considerable attention, mostly because the two romantic leads were both male. It’s a big step forward for Hollywood in that they produced a whopping two major films with male gay lead characters this year (how did they cope?!), but a film that is a milestone for Hollywood is not anything special for anyone who watches independent or foreign-language films on a regular basis. In truth, France, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia in particular have been making films with gay lead characters literally for decades, better than this, and without trumpeting their “daring” every time such a film is released. It’s just par for the course. I re-watched Les Roseau Sauvages (Andre Techine, 1994) earlier this week and it has considerably more depth and emotional involvement than Call Me By Your Name.

Love Simon, the other Hollywood film of male-male love release this year is another thing altogether and truly is a first in its use of the high school movie format that we have all seen over the last few decades for a gay romance – and it is a more entertaining, and thoroughly likeable, film by far. Hopefully, Love Simon will lead to such things being “normal” in major films. It is, apparently, the 14th highest grossing teen romance since 1980, which demonstrates that teenage audiences have no problem with the subject matter – not that anyone is likely to be shocked by that other than film executives, it seems. But out of Call Me By Your Name and Love Simon, it will be the latter that I will return to. It’s funny, charming and thoroughly engaging whether you’re the intended teen audience or not, and I found little of that in the more self-important watched tonight.

On a final note, the two films contain scenes that are very reminiscent of each other towards the end of their running times. The scene where Simon’s mother talks to him about his sexuality after he has come out has been rightfully applauded, but we get a similar scene between Elio and his father in Call Me By Your Name which is just as well done, if not better. In fact, it is probably the most touching moment within the whole film, and one of the few where I really thought I was getting to know what was going on inside the mind of the characters – but at that point, the film has ten minutes left to run and it all seems just a little too late. Fran Tirado, deputy editor of Out Magazine said of the film, “[it] seemed to be a very long, very beautifully art-directed gay porn, but with not as much sex, or plot.” It’s a quote that seems to sum the film up well.

Love, Simon (2018)

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Well, we finally made it.  2018 is the year when a major Hollywood studio thought it could finally make a mainstream high school movie with a gay lead character.  Considering gay characters have been part of teen TV dramas for around twenty years, I have no idea why it has taken this long to reach this point, but Love, Simon carries a great burden of responsibility with it.

And the film is a delight.  No, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, nor is it intended to be.  But it lacks any sense of self-importance, and is a well-made, unassuming, charming, likeable teen high school movie.  Note that I don’t say “gay teen high school movie.”  And this is the key thing here, and why the film has created interest.  This isn’t a film aimed at a gay audience, it is aimed at a general teen audience.

As a forty-something gay man this is a big deal.  There have been plenty of high school movies made before with gay teenagers as the central character, but they were indie movies made by gay men for gay men.  There was never a suggestion that such a protagonist could or would be of interest to a general audience.  And yet, tonight (when the film opened in the UK) the cinema audience appeared to be made of teenagers just having a normal night out at the movies.  And, remarkably for a UK audience, they actually applauded and cheered.   The gay protagonist didn’t matter, and surely that’s the way things could be.  The movie is being viewed as a teen rom-com, not a gay teen rom-com.  I wonder how much of a difference that must make if you’re a gay teenager growing up today.  I could never have imagined twenty-odd years ago going to a cinema with a group of straight friends to see Beautiful Thing or Get Real.  

The fact that Love, Simon betrays none of its historic significance on screen is part of what makes it so likeable.  But credit also has to go to the writer, director and actors for making sure the near two-hour film (Ok, it could have been trimmed just a little) actually works.  Nick Robinson (who I know very little about) was a superb choice in the lead role, but the supporting cast was also filled with faces familiar to the teen audience thanks to roles in The Flash, 13 Reasons Why, and others (a rather canny way to reassure those potential audiences who might be unsure of the subject matter).  And, while the film has attracted attention, there is a vast difference between this and the self-trumpeting pomposity that accompanied Brokeback Mountain thirteen years ago.  It’s a shame that it has taken a dozen years to get from that (all gay guys live miserable lives or die premature deaths) to this (it can be difficult, but it will all work out), but now we’ve finally made it, hopefully this will lead to other movies of a similar ilk very soon.

Geography Club (2013)

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Cameron Deane Stewart and Justin Deeley star as Russell and Kevin, two teenagers at the rather oddly named Goodkind High School who are gay and closeted – as are virtually all of the LGBT teens at the school.  But one night Russell and Kevin are spotted kissing by Min (Ally Maki), who is part of the “Geography Club,” a group where LGBT teens can get together without the worry of arousing suspicion thanks to the name of the group.  Russell joins, but getting Kevin, a star football player, to join is altogether more difficult.

It is easy to dismiss Geography Club, a relatively family-friendly film (only minor swearing and no nudity or sex) about LGBT teenagers (and others who view themselves as outcasts) at a high school in America.  It is bland, even twee in places, and yet it is remarkably charming  for the most part, even if there is something of a sting in the tale’s conclusion.

The film is refreshing in a number of ways.  Firstly, it’s a gay-themed film without sex and nudity at every opportunity.  Anyone who watches gay-themed indie movies regularly might be surprised to even know they exist at all.

Secondly, this isn’t really aimed at gay adults, but gay teens – arguably younger teens at that – and that separates this from the crowd.  The artwork for the UK edition of the DVD compares it to Glee, and the comparison isn’t totally unwarranted, but it also does the film something of a disservice.  Glee, even at its best, was never really believable in any way.  This, of course, was intended for the most part.  People don’t break out into song at every opportunity in real life, and the often-surreal nature of the show didn’t really place it in the real world, despite it’s attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to cover virtually every topic important to teenagers – with the strange exception of drug abuse.  But my point is that the target audiences for Glee and Geography Club are the same, although they approach things is a very different way.

Thirdly (and this ties in with my first point), the film is well-acted, well-directed, and clearly has a higher budget than most indie gay-themed films from America.  This looks like a real movie rather than a student piece put together by eighteen-year-olds.

However, there are some issues.  Cameron Deane Stewart is superb as Russell – likeable and charismatic, and, ultimately, believable.  However, Justin Deeley was twenty-seven at the time the movie was made.  And he’s playing a sixteen year old.  No matter how fine an actor he might be (and he plays the part well), it’s obvious that the guy is not sixteen.  Quite why filmmakers insist on using men in their mid-to-late twenties to play teenagers is a mystery to me.  A few years older isn’t a problem, but ten year older is, and even more so when major films are now using kids/teens who are the actual ages of their characters (or thereabouts).  This is a relatively new phenomenon – Tobey Maguire was twenty-seven when he played high school student Peter Parker in Spiderman (2002).  Tom Holland was twenty when he played the role for the first time.  The difference is startling.   The same is true of the young cast of It (2017) who were, for the most part, roughly the same age as their characters.  It isn’t just a case of whether someone’s face looks sixteen or twenty-six – the believeability comes about by how they walk, how they talk, their build, etc.  This is not to criticise Deeley’s performance, which is fine, but it does rob the film of some realism.

That issue aside, Geography Club works rather well, and is worth revisiting, especially with the release this year of Love, Simon.  I haven’t seen that movie (it’s not out in the UK for another week), but it is a mainstream movie aimed a gay teen audience in the same way Geography Club is.  It will be interesting to see how the two movies compare, not just in plot and budget, but how they address their intended audiences.  Either way, Geography Club is well worth a watch, and is an important movie in its own right.  No, it’s not a gay teen movie made by a major studio, but it is still a gay-themed movie aimed at teens and, despite the plethora of gay-themed movies over the last fifteen years or so, that is still a rarity – which is rather surprising given the popularity, and almost classic status, of UK gay-themed movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, made in 1996 and 1998 respectively.  In 2013, Geography Club managed to fill a void in the market – or, at least, provided a stop-gap until Love, Simon came along.