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 Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are best friends. We first see them as they spend a summer day running through the commercial flower field that Léo’s parent work. They have sleepovers where they unconscientiously sleep side by side. They tell each other stories. Léo sheds tears as he listens to Rémi 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 Léo, “Are you two together?” That question changes everything.
Léo is now aware that there are social expectations at play. He immediately begins to create distance between himself and Rémi, who until now has been his most intimate friend. He begins to avoid Rémi, leaving Rémi even more alone in this new environment. Léo 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. Rémi is dead. The school is distraught. We watch as grief counselors help the children address their grief. But Léo 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 Rémi’s mother Sophie (Émilie 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 Rémi’s death. She feels as if she has lost two sons, because early in the film she calls Léo, 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 Léo to separate himself from his friend and soulmate. To further prove he doesn’t fit such a label, Léo 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. Léo by distancing himself from Rémi isolates them both. Rémi is abandoned. Léo, even as he tries to fit in, is still cut off from meaningful relationship—certainly from anything as meaningful as he has shared with Rémi. That isolation proves deadly for Rémi. It also is totally stifling for Léo in his grief.
Léo’s entry into adolescence turned out to be an expulsion from the Eden he had known with Rémi. 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.