Earlier this year, Laura Wandel’s Playground turned a Belgian primary school into a harrowing emotional warzone and, now, Lukas Dhont’s Close arrives to serve as a sort of spiritual sequel. This Flanders middle-school set tale of how gender politics and teenagehood can brutally sever even the closest of bonds is unsparing in its depiction of young trauma and fear that, though it doesn’t ring quite as true as Playground, is a piercing study of the onset of traditional masculinity and its inevitably destructive results on a young mind.
We follow the first year of middle school for Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele), two 12-going-on-13 year olds who are joining this new school together as the closest of friends. There’s a genuine and deep well of platonic love between the pair – they’re closer to brothers than they are typical young male friends, albeit without the fighting that inevitably mars fraternal relationships. In the opening sequence, we see their shared imagine lighting up each of their worlds, hiding from and then fleeing an invisible army through a field of gorgeously colourful chrysanthemum flowers, and it’s magical, pure childish joy.
Yet, tragically, the move to a new phase of youth puts the pair at odds. Suddenly, their friendship, based as it is in tactility and loving supportiveness, looks feminine, lacking the fighting and spite that is meant to define teenage male relationships, and the other kids start hurling homophobic insults and insinuations at them. The more gentle and carefree Remi is able to brush these slights off, but they dig in deep for Leo, who fits in more naturally with the sporty boys, and he starts to pull away from Remi, who goes from confused to crushed in a series of deeply upsetting scenes.
The performances from both boys are remarkable, and huge credit must be paid to Dhont for drawing out such intelligent and emotionally honest displays – Dambrine’s final shot in particular is a real stunner, marking him out for big things in the future, should he so want. You never doubt them for even a second, though the same praise can’t quite be heaped on the writing. Close revolves around a middle-act pivot that will no doubt prove divisive. You could find it earnestly devastating or a nastily manipulative contrivance – for me it fell too close to the latter and the back half of the film never really recovers from it, despite the strength of both the child and adult cast.
It’s a double shame that I found this move to pull me so far out of the film, as Dhont’s filmmaking is also mostly excellent. He wraps his camera around his cast, filling the film with intimate and empathetic close-ups and nicely capturing the changing of the seasons, though the score is a bit overinsistent. As a go-for-the-heartstrings weepie, Close is often bluntly effective (there was a lot of sniffling at my screening) and always superbly acted, but I found there to be a vein of overkill running through it, going for the jugular even when something quieter would have sufficed.