Movie Review: Belgium’s Oscar contender is about Tween Boys “Close” enough to cause problems

Credit Belgian director and co-writer Lukas Dhont for knowing the one “special effect” his drama “Close” has going for it. Every chance he gets, he makes the audience lose itself in the mystery of his star’s limpid, boyish eyes.

As 12 year-old Leo, Eden Dambrine lets us see curiosity about the world, take in the carpet of color that is ground zero in Belgium’s world famous “floriculture” (flowers) industry, and deep affection and connection for his “BFF,” Remi (Gustav De Waele)..

They spend their days, their meals and many of their nights together playing, working the flower fields and bicycling, often ending those days with sleepovers. They are inseparable and mutually supportive.

But when school starts, the notice of their classmates affects Leo a lot more than Remi.

“Are you a couple?” (in French and/or Dutch, with English subtitles) is as tactful as any of their classmates get. The girls are curious. The boys are quick to grab hold of a slur.

As Leo turns touchy about this, his eyes let us see the fear, the fury and then the guilt as he decides to distance himself from his best friend, who is confused and then deeply hurt over a bond that’s breaking and a love — however platonic — that’s been taken away.

Dhont, who also did the ballerina-with-gender-dysphoria drama “Girl,” keeps everything asexual and innocent in this tale of what might be that moment of sexual awakening. Both boys are sensitive, but Remi, a promising young oboist, is the more sensitive one.

As Leo doesn’t articulate what he’s doing — perhaps neither has the words yet to express their feelings — Remi is shattered and bereft. An attempt to sever the bond of sharing a bed during their sleepovers devolves into a wrestling, shoving match because Remi’s mom (Émilie Dequenne) isn’t there to do what parents do, in Flanders, Fife or Philadelphia.

“Boys, use your WORDS!”

But Remi can’t find the right way to protest and complain through the hurt. And slight, soulful Leo, who bristles at slurs flung their way, starts to hang with the jocks and takes on youth hockey. He can’t find a way to insist on “boundaries” with a friend whom he starts to question thanks to the cruelty of a few classmates.

And as tightlipped as kids are, parents and school counselors can only know so much before a situation gets out of hand and tragedy strikes.

I like the way Dhont gives viewers room to make up our own minds about what’s happening and come to different conclusions than you’d expect from him, given the subject matter and the tack his first two feature films have taken.

The story is almost entirely from Leo’s point of view, a kid who sets out to silence gossip he’s uncomfortable about and distance himself from a connection he doesn’t necessarily understand well enough to embrace or reject.

Whatever his emerging sexuality, when the worst happens, his emotional shut-down is eerily on-the-mark, limited to lashing-out as his now-weepy classmates and refusing to acknowledge to his parents, or Remi’s, the guilt he’s carrying around.

Dambrine isn’t a polished, subtle “adult” actor, so it’s probably too much to expect much more than his ultra-realistic poker-faced reaction to the swirl of emotions and events that overcome him. Dequenne, as Remi’s mom, has to do the heavy lifting in their scenes together, and she’s terrific at walking on eggshells, Sophie’s only recourse in questioning a fragile child who is the only one who can tell her if “something happened between you two.”

“Close” is a marvelously understated movie, and if it has an agenda, it’s a combination of the adult need to shut down bullying the moment it’s evident and to give kids the sense that they can talk about anything they’re confused about, even if this is always going to seem better in theory than it ever will in practice.

We can see the boys are “Close.” But unless we get them to open up about it, they’ll never know how to articulate what it is they’re feeling. And the very least damage done by miscommunications is hurt feelings. Other consequences can be lifelong, or terminal.

Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide and brief strong language.

Cast: Eden Dambrine, Gustav De Waele, Émilie Dequenne and Léa Drucker

Credits: Directed by Lukas Dhont, scripted by Lukas Dhont and Angelo Tijssens. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:44


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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