Post-'Moonlight,' coming-out tales 'Call Me by Your Name' and 'Battle of the Sexes' build buzz in Toronto

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

It had the misfortune of being overshadowed by the dramatics of Envelopegate, but let’s not forget that Moonlight made Oscar history earlier this year when it became the first LGBTQ movie to win Best Picture.

Barry Jenkins’s moving coming-of-age/coming-out sensation initially began impressing audiences and building awards buzz as it played the fall festival circuit in 2016. Flash forward a year, and we might be getting an inkling that Moonlight has enabled similarly themed films to find a wide audience. This week at the Toronto International Film Festival, critics are already falling in love with two new coming-out movies: Luca Guadagnino’s summer romance Call Me by Your Name, which premiered at Sundance in January and drew a standing O after its Toronto bow Thursday night, and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Billie Jean King biopic Battle of the Sexes, which hit Telluride earlier this month and will unspool at Toronto on Sunday.

Aside from their historical settings (Call Me by Your Name is set “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983, while Battle of the Sexes plays out mostly in Southern California in 1973), the films are starkly different. But like Moonlight, both are important, incredibly well-told stories of sexual self-discovery in environments that aren’t outwardly supportive (that’s a minor spoiler for one of the films, but we won’t say which). And like Moonlight, both are potential major awards contenders.

Call Me by Your Name stars revelatory newcomer Timothée Chalamet (who played a young Casey Affleck in Interstellar) as the intelligent, 17-year-old piano savant Elio, accustomed to “waiting for summer to end” at the countryside chalet of his American father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Italian mother (Amira Casar). His world is shaken by the arrival of a hulking and confident (arrogant?) grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), a houseguest seeking the mentorship of Elio’s archaeologist dad.

There’s a certain cat-and-mouse dynamic to Elio and Oliver’s courtship. Elio is at first oblivious to Oliver’s flirtatious advances, and, given he’s bursting with teenage hormones, initially begins a sexual relationship with a friendly French girl (and in one of the film’s most talked about moments, also a friendly peach). By the time Elio and Oliver realize their feelings for one another and their mutual lust fully intensifies, summer’s practically over.

The initial attraction is more evident in Battle of the Sexes, which reunites Crazy. Stupid. Love. costars Emma Stone (who will likely be back on Oscar’s Best Actress ballot a year after winning for La La Land) and Steve Carell as sparring tennis pros King and Bobby Riggs, respectively. Billie Jean, who’s married to Larry King (not that Larry King, and played by Austin Stowell) at the time, falls pretty instantly for hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) over the course of one of the sensually filmed beauty stylings you’ll ever witness.

Billie Jean initially resists, but eventually gives in to Marilyn after a night out dancing. Marilyn joins Billie Jean on the tour, but we’re soon enough reminded that this was the ’70s — and the threat of her sexuality getting out the public could potentially railroad her career just as she has signed up to once and for-all shut down the cocky, “proud chauvinist” Riggs in the film’s title match.

Where the two films differ most might be the public perceptions of them heading into Toronto. After its buzzed-about premiere at Sundance, Call Me by Your Name has been hyped as a Next Big Thing, particularly among gay critics and fans. “Call Me by Your Name Is the Queer Movie I Always Needed,” blares a headline on Nerdist, which echoed many responses I heard about the film coming out of Park City, and again after Toronto’s Thursday premiere. Its gay romance is front and center in the film’s trailer, as it should be.

Battle of the Sexes, meanwhile, is just as much focused on Billie Jean coming to terms with her sexuality as it is the eponymous match against Riggs, but you wouldn’t know that from the marketing. Roughly four seconds of the two-minute trailer, which rightfully lauds King’s role as feminist and champion of women’s rights, is devoted to her relationship with Marilyn (and if you weren’t specifically looking for it, you might not even notice it). It’s an odd decision, especially given that King is a tennis icon and a gay icon who came out publicly in 1988.

Regardless of marketing, Call Me and Battle are individually vital films, yet together signal continued momentum when it comes to bring more LGBTQ stories to the forefront. Moonlight, it seems, may have marked a bigger turning point than we thought.

Battle of the Sexes opens in theaters Sept. 22; Call Me by Your Name opens Nov. 24.

Watch an exclusive scene from Battle of the Sexes:

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