Coming of age can open the world in new ways, but at what price? In Lukas Dhont?s Close (which is Belgium?s entry for Oscar consideration) we watch a sudden and tragic shift from the idyllic world of childhood to thechallenging world of trying to fit in to the expectations of society. The film has been shortlisted for Best International Feature.
Thirteen year olds L?o (Eden Dambrine) and R?mi (Gustav De Waele) are best friends. We first see them as they spend a summer day running through the commercial flower field that L?o?s parent work. They have sleepovers where they unconscientiously sleep side by side. They tell each other stories. L?o sheds tears as he listens to R?mi masterfully play his oboe. Theirs is a Edenic existence that exemplifies the innocence of childhood.
When school starts, they head off to their new school together. As the camera moves back, we see that they are alone in the crowd of other kids they don?t know. They are physically demonstrative of their emotional closeness. Then one day at recess, a girl asks L?o, ?Are you two together?? That question changes everything.
L?o is now aware that there are social expectations at play. He immediately begins to create distance between himself and R?mi, who until now has been his most intimate friend. He begins to avoid R?mi, leaving R?mi even more alone in this new environment. L?o joins the hockey team as a way of proving his masculinity, even though it is new and awkward for him.
On a school field trip tragedy happens. R?mi is dead. The school is distraught. We watch as grief counselors help the children address their grief. But L?o remains silent and stoic. His grief is put on hold, because how can he deal with such feelings?including guilt?without looking unmasculine.
The only other person who might understand is R?mi?s mother Sophie (?milie Dequenne). But how can he go to her when he feels like he is so much at fault for what has happened? Sophie is also struggling to find answers and comfort in the aftermath of R?mi?s death. She feels as if she has lost two sons, because early in the film she calls L?o, the ?son of my heart?. It is the tentative reaching out of these two people that will open the possibility of healing.
Dhont draws on his own experience of growing up queer, but he is careful not to label the boys? relationship as anything other than childhood friendship. It is the very threat of labeling that pushes L?o to separate himself from his friend and soulmate. To further prove he doesn?t fit such a label, L?o goes out for hockey. Hockey is convenient because not only is it considered manly, but he is able to hide. He wears a uniform, so he is an indistinguishable part of a group. He is masked, and in a sense, caged.
This is a film that focuses on isolation. Adolescence is often a time when the perceived conflicts of social expectation cause changes in the way we see the world. L?o by distancing himself from R?mi isolates them both. R?mi is abandoned. L?o, even as he tries to fit in, is still cut off from meaningful relationship?certainly from anything as meaningful as he has shared with R?mi. That isolation proves deadly for R?mi. It also is totally stifling for L?o in his grief.
L?o?s entry into adolescence turned out to be an expulsion from the Eden he had known with R?mi. He will never be able to go back. It will be challenging for him to move into his new world. It will be even harder if he is only allows his perceived role to define him.
Photos courtesy of A24.