MOVIE REVIEW: Beautiful Boy


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)


Going In

The truth is, I’m just not that interested in seeing Call Me By Your Name. Might as well get that out of the way right up front. But the thing about film criticism is that a responsible critic doesn’t just watch the movies that they might like. Appreciation for cinematic excellence must exist outside of one’s preferences, and so here I sit, about to take in a story about a sensual romance between a 24-year old man and 17-year old boy. The age gap in this story is a big concern, as is Hollywood’s tendency to label sexual lust and desire as “love,” but I refuse to judge this book (adaptation) by its cover. Many critics have raved and gone so far as to label  Luca Guadagnino’s film “a masterpiece,” and that alone makes it essential viewing, regardless of my resulting opinion.

2 Hours and 12 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

In many ways, Call Me By Your Name earns its place among the best films of the year. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is gorgeous.  Whether it’s the landscapes of the Italian countryside or perfectly angled interiors, every shot captures a feeling of authenticity to the era. Under Guadagnino’s direction, the details are captured everywhere, in a glance here or brush of the hand there, and the beginnings of Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) romance can be noticed ever so subtly if one just pays enough attention. The acting in the film is also to be commended. Chalamet rightfully deserves all praise and award consideration coming his way after turning in one of the best performances of the year. His boyish charm comes through brightly on the screen, and when he hurts it is impossible not to feel that in your soul. Hammer, who never disappoints, plays the older American visitor pitch perfect. The nuance in his hints of romantic interest are delicately balanced against his boisterous personality until the moment he lets go to release a torrent of built up passion.  The chemistry between the two leads is palpable and the growing desire between them practically drips off of the screen like the beads of sweat on their shirtless chests. And then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, playing Elio’s father, who is quietly effective for most of the film leading up to one incredibly powerful Oscar-worthy scene in which he must do a thing every parent wishes would never be necessary – comfort a hurting child. 

Call Me By Your Name could have been a moving, romantic coming-of-age tale about first love, if not for its two glaring problems. Why the majority of critics have seemed to overlook these issues is worrisome. Legally, there is nothing wrong with the relationship as it is portrayed. A 17-year old boy in early 1980’s Italy was past the age of consent and could make decisions as an adult. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right. Hammer is a large man and he physically towers over Chalamet, presenting the appearance of an age gap closer to the actual 10-years between the actors than the 7 between the characters. Elio is shown to be young, still living with his parents, following their rules, and laying his head in their laps for nightly book readings. Oliver, in contrast, is in control of every emotion and hides his carnal urges toward Elio for quite some time before ultimately giving in to the younger boy’s increasing persuasions. The relationship feels much more like a dominating one than one of equally experienced adults giving consent. Oliver is a sexually mature world-traveler. Elio is the opposite, inexperienced and unsure of himself and his sexuality. It increasingly feels like Oliver is controlling the situation and feeding his own passion and desire in the moment without any long-term concern for its effect on Elio. Does he care about Elio? Probably, but that’s another fault of the film. Love is shown in action and sacrifice, not just physical interaction, and we see neither of these in the choices made in Call Me By Your Name.

Also concerning is the way in which both Oliver and Elio treat women. Elio is in a relationship with the sweet, same-aged Marzia (played by the stunning Esther Garrel), but as he struggles with his sexuality the result is that she becomes used for his pleasure and nothing more . While the film focuses extensively on the emotional toll his feelings to toward Oliver have on Elio, it merely skims over how horribly treated Marzia is and what the repercussions could be on her own psyche. Oliver, meanwhile, has his own skeletons in the closet that speak to his in appropriate treatment of women. It’s all washed away, seemingly, because the film promotes the boys’ relationship and sexual exploration as positive. Even Elio’s parents support and encourage the relationship between their visiting research assistant and teenage son. It’s as if Guadagnino believes that the feelings of passion Oliver and Elio shared were worth it no matter who got hurt in the process.

I can’t help but wonder just how this movie might play with a 24-year old man and 17-year old girl, instead of two men. Would as many people be overlooking this troublesome relationship? In contrast to the caring, loving actions shown in the relationship between Kevin and Chiron in Moonlight, Oliver and Elio’s summer romance feels like nothing more than a brief sexual fling, and I’m going to need a lot more depth than that if you want me to care for these characters.

Verdict

Despite being a beautifully made film that features fantastic performances, Call Me By Your Name‘s inappropriate romance and resulting treatment of those affected by it make this film impossible to recommend. Sex and lust are not the same thing as love, and though the film captures the feeling of desire, its all made dirty due to the age difference and unequal stature of the two men at its center. The film’s craftsmanship is simply undeniable, but its offenses are equally unforgivable.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Lady Bird

In an understated though pivotal moment in the film, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) posits to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) that perhaps love and attention are one in the same. It’s a subtle theme that lives within Lady Bird, the feature directorial debut of writer/actress Greta Gerwig.

Culling bits and pieces from her own early aughts upbringing in Sacramento, California, Gerwig skillfully maneuvers her characters throughout the film in a way that feels uniquely honest and realistic. Every time you think the story is headed toward obvious conclusions, she pivots, landing in a place completely unexpected. Each character, even those with the slightest of screen time, feels fleshed out and genuine. Setting her main family dynamic against a struggling middle class existence, eschewing traditional white bread tropes and first world problems for an intimate look at familial relationships not backdropped by unrealistic lavishness, gives Lady Bird a refreshing tone. It’s not that Gerwig doesn’t explore social and economic class as a foil for her protagonists, but she doesn’t dwell there. Gerwig is far too accomplished a writer to waste time on exploitation of the haves versus the have-nots, instead allowing her characters to live and breathe within a realistic world, facing and conquering (or not) realistic problems, and landing in a place her audience can believe in and relate to.

The catalyst for all of this is of course Ronan as the titular “Lady Bird”, a moniker she gave to herself, presumably as part of her rebellion against her hyper-critical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird dreams of the day she can be free of “soul-sucking” Sacramento- the “midwest” of California as she labels it- and go live where the culture is. She is equal parts inconsiderate and selfish, but is impossible to dislike.  Attribute that to the talent of Ronan, who embodies Lady Bird with an inquisitive charm, albeit with an irascible discontent for her mom’s inability to rationally communicate with her.

Gerwig gives a masterclass on adolescent relationships. Whether Lady Bird is navigating the waters of first love- the boyish good looks and sweet naiveté of Danny (Lucas Hedges) and the rebellious, rock-n-roll charm of Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) each providing unique challenges- or best friendships, both real- a scene stealing Beanie Feldstein as the perky, insecure Julie… or fake- the high on social stature, “cool girl”, Jenna (Odeya Rush)- there is an innocent honesty to each. It would have been easy for Gerwig to assign a villainous arc to numerous characters, but she instead decides to keep these kids as authentic as possible. We will like or dislike certain characters, but there are no cruel intentions behind any of them, even when they make poor decisions.

But it’s the family dynamic that exists within the center of the film. Tracey Letts, as Lady Bird’s father Larry, gives such an emotionally understated performance. He is the anti-Marion, choosing to internalize his struggles. While Marion is outwardly critical, Larry hides his emotions behind computer solitaire and a bottle of anti-depressants. He would rather see his daughter happy than express his hurt at having to drop her off a block from school to hide her embarrassment over his uncool car. Lady Bird’s adopted brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live in girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott) don’t get a lot to do, but both serve the story at appropriate moments.

Of course none of this works without the tour de force performance by Metcalf. Marion is hopelessly passive aggressive toward Lady Bird, and their interactions more often than not devolve into an argumentative tit for tat ending in regretful insults and shattered feelings. These women are outright mean and spiteful to each other, but when Ronan and Metcalf are locked in, both performers are firing on all cylinders and will be hard for Academy voters to ignore when Oscar voting commences. Also credit Gerwig’s ultra tight script, which never incites false emotions with overly dramatic beats. The tensions between Lady Bird and Marion feel completely organic, and their frustrations with each other are a natural conclusion given their strong personalities.

At one point, Lady Bird asks of her mother, “Do you like me?” The exasperated Marion replies, “Of course I love you.” Lady Bird asks again…”But do you LIKE me?” Marion can only stare back at her daughter, unable to find the right words, just as she has throughout the film. Through all of the hurtful, contentious interactions between Lady Bird and her mom, there is clearly an underlying love of each other, even if neither of them can convey it properly. It exists within each concerned glare from Marion’s tired eyes. It exists when Lady Bird is quick to jump to her mother’s defense whenever an outsider speaks down on her. And it exists profoundly in the film’s final sequences, in moments of regret and self realization. It’s nice that Gerwig doesn’t completely wrap her ending up in a bow, instead opting for something ambiguously hopeful. Lady Bird is finding the best version of herself through trial and error; an opportunity in which her mother has worked many double shifts trying to provide her. And there is that final moment, when Lady Bird commits her confession ironically outside the church she has just exited, not contentiously and not spiteful.

This is as close to flawless as a coming of age film gets. It proves that love can hurt. Sometimes the very things we try so desperately to get away from are the very things we seek when we feel lost without them. Sometimes all that matters is what’s scribbled on some crumpled up note paper, or a pretty dress found on a thrift store clothes rack, in a dance with a true best friend, or a well timed Dave Matthews song.

Love exists if you are paying attention.

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