Review: Close Explores Sexuality, Masculinity and Tragedy at a Fragile Crossroads in Teen Life

The second feature film from Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont, Close may be the most devastating film of recent memory, one that grapples with very serious, very painful subjects with such grace and tenderness that one might wish to be able to do nothing else but reach out and embrace the film’s broken-hearted characters and hug them, fiercely and until the tears stop falling. Dhont has accomplished something most filmmakers only aspire to, creating a narrative that’s so beautifully delivered and so profoundly meaningful that it will truly and deeply affect its audiences. All that said, his choice of subject matter is not for the faint of heart, not because it traffics in the type of gore or spectacle that many recent films rely on. Instead, Close is the story of children—two 13-year-old boys—confronting realities far beyond their mental and emotional maturity and the devastating ramifications of how they each navigate what crosses their paths.

Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are the best of friends, two young teens at that fragile crossroads of puberty where, in many ways, they remain as children, innocent, carefree and unburdened by the pressure of outside judgments, their own complicated feelings or the obligations and responsibilities of adulthood. And yet, they are drawing ever closer to the intensity of their maturing masculinity, their bodies changing into the ones that will carry them into adulthood and their sensibilities becoming ever more sensitive to those around them, both what intrigues them and what frightens them. The boys spend all their time together, in school and out of school, riding their bikes, running through the local flower fields and, more often than not, crashing together in Remi’s room at his family home. Spending so much time together, the boys have something like their own unspoken language, their looks and mannerisms communicating a closeness that words never could.

As teenagers have a way of doing, Leo and Remi are needled about their friendship one day over lunch, classmates curious if there’s something more than the platonic going on with the boys. This sends both into a spiral of their own making, Leo growing instantly defensive and insisting nothing of the sort is going on. Remi’s reaction is quite different, and it’s here where the film will reach into your chest, take hold of your heart and completely break it into pieces. You’ve been warned. To say more would ruin the filmmaker’s deft delivery of this tragic storyline, so alluding to it will have to do (though you may already guess). The rest of the film is concerned with the ramifications of Remi’s actions on his mother, his schoolmates, and most of all on Leo.

Dhont and cinematographer Frank van den Eeden create a sort of magic throughout Close, with camera work that seems to float around these children, their families and their lives, in a way that makes everything feel as though it may be happening in a dream. The camera lingers on each of the boy’s faces in key moments, revealing depths of emotion and sensitivity we might be tempted to assume children don’t experience. In busier scenes, as when the boys wrestle each other playfully (and then all of a sudden not at all) or amid a crowd of teenagers at school, there remains a palpable intimacy with the subjects, a sense that we’re still observing something very important, if quotidien. And though Dambrine and De Waele are the exceptional centers of the film, their mothers (Émilie Dequenne and Léa Drucker) are just as captivating, processing their own confusion, grief and frustration in visceral ways.

Close is not an easy film to watch; in fact, the most sensitive among us may not want to watch at all. But for those brave enough to bring Leo and Remi into their lives, Dhont rewards us with as much to think about as there is to struggle with. Drawing on personal experiences, the film (co-written with Angelo Tijssens) masterfully explores ideas like emerging (and confusing) sexuality, masculinity (both toxic and beautiful), the responsibilities of friendship, and the ripple effects of one’s actions, whether we intend them or not. It can be a cliche to say that a film will linger with viewers long after it ends, but Close earns that status as something beautiful, bittersweet and undeniably powerful.

Close is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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