Film festivals are rarely short on coming of age movies, and this year’s New York Film Festival has a number of high-profile filmmakers trying their hand at the genre – some for the first time. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name arrives with the loudest advance buzz from its screenings at Sundance, Berlin, and Toronto, and through its setting “somewhere in Northern Italy,” it plays a little bit like a more tender, youthful companion piece to his previous film, A Bigger Splash, which featured adults, including several with long and sordid relationship histories, vacationing in a tiny nook of the same country. Call Me By Your Name, based on the novel by André Aciman, adopts the point of view of 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who spends his summers in that unspecified Northern Italy with his American archeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his Italian mother (Amira Casar). His father also employs an annual intern – in this case twentysomething Oliver (Armie Hammer), a handsome American.
For reasons that must have to do with their vaguely bohemian-by-way-of-prosperous-academics lifestyle, Elio’s parents treat Oliver as part of the family almost instantly, and encourage Elio and Oliver to hang out. Elio is by turns fascinated, skeptical and, eventually (perhaps less gradually than he lets on), besotted as they ride bikes, go swimming, and speak dialogue that sometimes feels a bit obtuse for a teenager talking to a grad student. But that’s part of Guadagnino’s strategy in illustrating the strange and fuzzy boundaries between adults and kids, between playful teenage flirting and adult passion. Even his editing style mimics the slow-then-fast rhythms of approaching adulthood: Many scenes proceed languidly, then get ruthlessly curtailed mid-action, snapped into place with a cut. The acting is top-notch, and the cinematography captures a beautiful setting without turning into travel porn (or, for that matter, the other kind of porn, though some of the graspy, breathless sex scenes protest too much).
Both the closeness and a vague antagonism between Elio and Oliver emerges with confusing quickness, and though much of Call Me By Your Name is lovely and well-crafted, moreso than the shakier Bigger Splash, it’s never quite as subtle as the filmmakers seem to assume. The characters speak with a kind of off-kilter presumptuousness, which leads to an odd, sometimes awkward paradox – a movie that has a lot of dialogue about what’s going unspoken. Even a beautifully acted late-movie scene from Stuhlbarg has a certain elevated language where directness might have trumped the attempts at lyrical poetry. The movie is often gorgeous – most often when it’s not regarding its own gorgeousness.
Joachim Trier’s Thelma is also about an often-gorgeous same-sex romance, though in a queasier, more unsettling way. It’s ostensibly about Thelma (Eili Harboe) finding her way during her freshman year of college, but when she falls for a more outgoing student, she struggles to control a surprising set of abilities. Trier has made movies about young people before, but despite his stylistic flourishes, his features haven’t delved too deeply into the fantastical. Thelma has been compared to sort of an indie-movie X-Men or a slow-burn horror picture. But the obvious antecedent is Frozen – not the survival horror, but the Disney princess story. Thelma’s parents conceal her powers from the world and from herself; she’s a combination Anna and Elsa in one conflicted body. While Call Me By Your Name practically swoons at itself, Thelma is sometimes dispassionate to a fault – the kind of movie that so studiously avoids prompting the audience that it sometimes feels like a chilly exercise. What keeps it humming is Harboe’s performance, and Trier’s patience, evident from the very beginning when he takes his sweet time locating Harboe in a vast overhead shot. He hasn’t exactly made a horror movie here, but Thelma suggests he could.
The kind of sensitivity that aids these narratives would seem like a good fit for Todd Haynes, particularly coming off of Carol, one of his least academic films. But Haynes turns out to be a mismatch with children’s author Brian Selznick, who wrote the screenplay for Wonderstruck based on his novel (he also wrote the book that became Scorsese’s Hugo). The movie intercuts stories of two children, separated by fifty years: A deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds, with wonderfully expressive eyes) living in 1927 and depicted as a black-and-white silent film (sans subtitles); and Ben (Oakes Fegley), a Midwestern boy on the hunt for the biological dad he never knew. His world blurs into hers when an accident leaves his hearing drastically muddled, rendering him effectively deaf. They both make their way to New York City and wind up wandering around the Museum of Natural History.
The movie cuts between these two stories so briskly that after a while, the back-and-forth slows the story down – everything seems to be happening in inches. Despite all of the eventfulness, there’s little dramatic tension, and lots of footage of kids walking around a museum. When Ben meets Jamie (Jaden Michael), the movie really digs into the reality of a hearing kid and deaf kid trying to communicate, which is to say their scenes together get really tedious. For all of Haynes’ visual splendor – and this movie has plenty – he can’t find an efficient way to dramatize this story. Though the kids are pretty good, they’re stuck in a story taking blind faith in Selznick’s belief that there’s nothing more exciting than kids exploring carefully curated rooms. Hugo achieved the desired wonder through sheer will of Scorsese’s virtuosic 3D filmmaking. That never happens here, though the movie makes a play for it in its interminable final stretch.
In the Haynes film, Julianne Moore turns up (in the second of two roles) to explain how everything fits together, telling Ben “I need you to be patient with this story,” which is, frankly, kind of a dick thing to say to a character (and by extension to the audience) after 105 minutes of build up – and before an exposition-dump that, however whimsically rendered in museum-inspired miniatures, essentially amounts to a museum curator’s detailed CV. This flight of fancy brings Haynes to his Superstar doll roots, but in the context of a movie at least nominally intended for kids, it doubles as an explanation of what a poor job Wonderstruck has done in planting the roots of its emotions. True to real life, growing up on film is never as easy as it looks.