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Dan Webster reviews "Close"

If you consult the experts, they’ll tell you that teenagers are more prone to feel stress and anxiety than adults are. Moreover, with their brains still developing, teens aren’t always adept at making good decisions.

But we already knew that, right? To some of us, middle school in particular existed as a danger zone of emotional angst, from worries over increasingly difficult class assignments to where we’d fit into the school’s social scene—or even whether we’d be able to fit in at all. And sometimes we reacted by taking some fairly stupid, if not outright dangerous, actions.

Lukas Dhont’s interest in that period of life, and how in particular it applies to boys, is what inspired the Belgian filmmaker to co-write (with Angelo Tjissens) and direct the film Close—one of the five 2023 nominees for Best International Feature Film.

Dhont focuses his camera on Léo and Remi (played respectively by Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele). Lifelong friends, closer even than Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee, the two are still children, wrapped up in their mutual fantasies and virtually inseparable.

That’s how they are, that is, when they are introduced to us. They spend the nights together, they race through the fields (Léo’s parents own a flower farm), they embrace freely and without hesitation. But then they start their new school.

And quickly their closeness becomes an issue. When a girl asks Léo whether he and Remi are “together,” her meaning obvious, he recoils. No, he insists, they’re best friends. Near brothers. Which, of course, should be explanation enough. But it causes Léo to begin pulling away.

The question of why he does is never posed, much less answered. It’s enough to accept that such a presumption is enough to cause some boys—Léo being one—to shut down emotionally. And to react without thinking of what it might mean to others, which in Léo’s case involves Remi.

Children mature in their own individual time frames, of course. But the pressure that Léo feels adds to his evolution. And so, as he begins to close down around Remi, he begins to open up to other experiences—making new friends and pursuing new activities. It’s telling that one of those activities, ice hockey, couldn’t be any more testosterone-laced.

Throughout, director Dhont is able to capture just the right feel, not only of the kids but of their parents. Léo might suspect something is amiss when Remi doesn’t show up for a school field trip, but that doesn’t stop him from having fun at the beach. And when the bus returns to school, Léo’s mom comes aboard but is too overtaken by emotion to tell him exactly what has happened.

Let’s just say that what has happened calls for that type of public caution that is so ubiquitous today: a trigger warning. Anyone overly sensitive to personal tragedy should be wary of seeing Close.

Yet it’s also necessary to add that Dhont and his co-screenwriter don’t milk their script for melodrama the way an American filmmaker might. The characters in the film don’t resort to overt theatrics; one of the most powerful scenes is a dinner in which a male character silently begins to cry, a woman leaves the table and everyone else simply sits there, more or less in silence.

In his search for his cast, Dhont auditioned nearly 600 boys before finding Dambrine and De Waele, neither of whom had acted before. And both are superb, able both to capture the wild innocence of youth, the torment of rejection and the anguish of guilt.

Do the parents do right by the boys? Probably not. At least at first. But a climactic forest confrontation between Léo and Remi’s mother (played by Émelie Dequenne) demonstrates that, when a child’s emotions are at stake, the very best of parents do rise to the occasion—even if a bit late.

If only all of us could say we benefited from the same kind of parenting.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

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Movies 101 host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for Spokane7.com.