This is the category of Oscar nominated movies that co-star Timothée Chalamet. No? Sorry. This is the category of nominees that are oddly recent period pieces. Wrong again? Ugh. Okay, how about these are the coming of age stories for 2018? There we go.
Call Me By Your Name (deserves Best Picture & Best Actor)
One of my favorite films from this Oscar season, and absolutely the biggest surprise. It’s much kinder and funnier film than I expected. Just to put it in context, queer characters on-screen tend not to fare too well in their lives. Even during Moonlight, I kept flinching, expecting the worst to happen to Little. In the history of the Oscars, the award has been given to eleven people for portraying queer characters, and only two of them have not died during the course of their respective movies. If Timothée Chalamet wins for best actor, he’ll be the third. That’s not much of a spoiler, as the director has been talking up doing sequels that follow Chalamet’s character.
And he deserves it. Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the younger of the two men in this romance, is immediately the aggressor. That’s not to say he’s predatory, just forward and acting with intention. Elio and Oliver (Armie Hammer) are complex characters, at times both proud and insecure. The fact that it’s a same-sex romance does come into play a bit, but isn’t nearly as much of an obstacle for them getting together as their clashing personalities and pride are. Were either of them gender-swapped, much of the tension between them would remain. And both actors really capture small mannerisms to show this. Oliver almost always punctuates a moment of openness with a sardonic comment. Elio at first seems the embodiment of teenage detachment, but that turns out to be more about isolating himself than actual disinterest. The writing is good, and these actors do an amazing job bringing the script to life.
There’s even more that makes this movie instantly click. Music, specifically piano, is used in an amazing way to show passion, aloofness, vulnerability, and emotional investment. There are even moments when a solo piano will start to play and it’s unclear at first whether it’s diagetic or non-diagetic, blurring the real world and that of the emotive soundtrack. Something as small and rarely remarked-on like Oliver’s Star of David necklace ends up acting as short-hand for an enormous amount of subtext and background for how these two had similar experiences in life. And then there’s they way the movie is shot. The tones are warm enough that they could be attributed to either making the film look period appropriate (it takes place in the 80s) or to bring a note of emotional warmth. Either way, there’s a sincerity in Call Me By Your Name that is matched only by Lady Bird and Shape of Water this year.
Lady Bird (deserves Best Picture & Best Actress, Supporting Actress, Director, Writing…)
Speaking of Lady Bird. There’s a lot that’s similar in this coming of age tale, and quite a bit that sets it apart. Both movies are about a teenage lead who has mixed feelings about where they are living, and having complications when it comes to understanding how romantic relationships go. But there’s so much that’s singular and unique to Lady Bird.
Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school girl in 2002, trying to figure out her life. She has a complicated relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who can be both loving and judgmental. She has a complicated relationship with her friend Julie, with whom Lady Bird seems both very connected with and also dismissive of. She has a complicated relationship with… okay, with everyone. But that’s part of what makes this movie so special.
Where Call Me By Your Name seems like a scene that hones a continually narrowing focus, the world of Lady Bird slowly grows and blooms. She and her mother argue often, sometimes with dramatic flourishes, but will turn without warning and be incredibly close. Julie could have easily been a thinly written sidekick, which is how she’s sometimes treated, but after a friendship-breakup she returns with her own friend. Every character has an inner life, and a story all their own happening in the background, or even off camera entirely. There’s nary a character who remains a dull archetype by the end of the movie. Her mother has problems connecting, but her motivation and sacrifice ground her behavior. The too-cool boyfriend, the snobby rich girl, the first boyfriend, they all end up adding something, and being more than just those descriptions.
If there’s a turn in the story, it’s that we start out identifying with Lady Bird’s perspective, but slowly end up seeing more than she does. Our opinions on characters grow as they’re revealed on screen, and there comes a point when we have to wait for Lady Bird to catch up. This movie engages with the viewer, and then lets the viewer engage back with Lady Bird. The film focuses on her but she’s not the center of the universe. Once the universe shows itself to be dense enough to support this, it’s up to Lady Bird to come around and see all of the people she interacts with as full individuals. That’s a dangerous thing because all the small characters have to be written and acted with enough nuance and depth to support this. Like the way movies about fictional rock bands need music good enough to make you believe in them, movies that aim to show a person’s place in the midst of other individuals need, well, characters realized enough to make you believe. And this movie does that.
In a strange way, this film is quieter and smaller than you’d expect. All the individual parts, all the people, are real enough that they could be huge, could support their own stories. But they fit together in this small, personal film. In a movie that could be a noisy crowd, we get a story made of solid conversations.
There’s a scene where Lady Bird is talking with someone about a college application. After reading her essay, they tell her that she must love Sacramento. Lady Bird seems confused. The woman tells her that there are so many details that she must really love where she comes from. Lady Bird replies that she just pays a lot of attention. “Isn’t that the same thing?” she’s asked.
There is so much attention paid to every part of this movie, from the intimate filming style, to the immaculate writing, to the quiet perfection of the framing and direction, that the whole production feels like love. Not always like, but definitely love. And it has a very particular beauty in that love.