Dunno about you, but for me 13 was the worst. Everything was confusing and awkward and lonely and humiliating and uninhibited and oppressive all at once, and the noisy sweatbox that was junior high school cranked every negative emotion up to 13. Our mandatory classroom viewings of the “changing bodies” video were two years earlier — laughable and boring, outdated and technically informative compared to The Talk that some of us never heard at home. With all the peer pressure and social panic, the misery and self-loathing, the cliques ruling the open spaces and the nerds staking claim on the deserted corners…honestly, it’s a wonder we as a species ever make it to 14.
Not much has changed. Teens gonna teen. Society hasn’t found the cure for puberty. Big Pharma might have tools to procrastinate it, and various addictions might drown out its screams, but sooner or later it comes for us. Anyone with their defenses down when it hits is doomed, which was pretty much all of us. From Belgium’s version of the life phase I miss least, director/co-writer Lukas Dhont brings us together with Close, one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best International Feature, which just reached Indianapolis theaters last weekend and broke every heart that ventured out for the occasion.
In Dhont’s portrayal of secondary school, life isn’t The Breakfast Club where social castes are oppressively everything, nor is it the typical Hollywood school-of-hard-knocks nightmare with bloodthirsty bullies menacing the rest of us. The teens dabble in picking on each other, but it doesn’t last — most of their aggression is sublimated through sports, whether it’s joining organized teams, loose soccer bouts in the schoolyard, or nattering on about favorite players. (As a non-sports buff, the only name I recognized of those checked here was Cristiano Ronaldo, thanks to incessant Twitter mentions ’round World Cup time. Yes, I actually learned something redeemable from Twitter within the past six months!)
Into that world walk Leo and Remi (Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele), rarely inseparable lifelong BFFs who do everything together — hang out, do typical kid stuff, bike to and from school, pitch in at Leo’s family’s farm, mingle with each other’s parents, stay nights at each other’s houses, and so on. Sometimes they let their personal spaces intersect, hug, dangle their arms around each other, wrestle playfully, and so on…all in good friendship. And that’s as far as it goes. In many scenes the camera shares their confines and snuggles up to each of them like a third friend in the mix. We get no sense that other schoolkids their age ever said an untoward thing to them in primary ed. Back in the day, maybe American kids were like this too, though it feels like you’d have to go back pretty far in history to nail down that precise good-ol-‘day.
Like our own middle schools, junior highs, or whatever wealthy boarding schools do with their 13-year-olds (do they just go straight into internships or seats on Daddy’s board?), teens in this secondary school aren’t so easygoing or ready to shrug off sights that don’t conform to their limited experiences. For the most part, other boys pay them little heed beyond some occasional grunty jostling in the typical bro-test of burgeoning manly defensiveness or whatever. Then the testosterone passes and they move on. The girls, on the other hand, have questions for the duo, burning curiosity and very little tact. They ask Leo and Remi to their faces if they’re a couple — not that it’s any of their business, and the girls aren’t exactly skilled interviewers. Their motives for asking aren’t clear — is it a pretext before they escalate to harsher teasing? Are they excitable proto-liberals hoping to make their very first Gay Best Friends? Or are they just perplexed and sincerely looking to understand why these two don’t maintain a heteronormative minimum safe distance? Give the Li’l Inquisitors credit for going straight to the source, I guess, as opposed to talking trash about them behind their backs.
Leo and Remi are taken aback by the question. They’re both quick to say no, they aren’t a “couple”. They’re simply, virtually like brothers. Neither of them has to think before answering. But after the chat is over, at least one of them is thinking about it now. No longer insulated from fellow teens, their unbreakable bond begins to wobble as a new, unwelcome sensation insinuates itself between them, one of the worst bugaboos a teen can feel: self-consciousness.
As they struggle to unpack the odd reactions they don’t fully understand in themselves (sexual awakening? gay panic? peevishness at nosy kids?), things between them begin to deteriorate. The blissful state of friendship they once shared now begs questions and second-guessing. Unthinkable things happen. They try hanging out with other kids. They maybe skip a nightly stay-over or two. They pick up pastimes, as when Leo decides ice hockey might now be his thing, rather opposite from Remi the talented oboist. Things get tenser as the rift widens. Obviously as ordinary teens they can’t just talk to each other, because that isn’t how teenage years work. When they try, it’s painfully bumbling and filled with more silences than deep thoughts. They’re not equipped to verbalize all the newfound turbulence in their heads. There’s no glib screenwriter handing cards full of snappy quips to them as a substitute for Real Talk. All they can do is keep escalating unless someone explodes first.
Less than halfway into the film, a traumatic event changes everything — not just their lives or their relationship status, but the very direction of Close itself. You might or might not see it coming, but in one scene involving a particularly expressive teacher…you just know. Everything falls apart, everyone tries to pick up the pieces, but nobody can hold on to them. Pain, loss, grief, anger, confusion, and other states of utter helplessness haunt the souls of all involved, who have to cope with the eternally paralyzing question of “Now what?”
Both young actors navigate complex performances, volleying between the extremes of happiest times and tumultuous chaos with prodigious skill, either preternaturally gifted or expertly guided (or both). It isn’t a competition, but Dambrine by far comes to shoulder the heavier weight, searing any number of unspoken thoughts and undefinable feelings into the theatrical viewer from that big screen with his Margaret Keane eyes and excessively touchy-feely physicality, which might seem bizarre to those of us who’ve been brought up to feel like even accidentally brushing against other people is a felony. His thin, gangly Leo isn’t like that with just Remi, either — he and his older brother Charlie (Igor van Dessel) share the same level of naturalistic, casually clingy expression with each other. Same goes between the two of them and each other’s moms. Some people really are just like that until society frightens them back into their shells.
Though their dads can feel like placeholders at times (save a scene in which one of them definitely got to me), the moms are the focus of their households after the thing happens. Especially at the forefront is Remi’s mom (Émilie Dequenne from 2001’s Brotherhood of the Wolf), who…let’s just say has a lot going on. As our cast breaks down, heals, and breaks down again, her path up and down those hills and valleys is a tough feat in itself, a position not to be envied and never to be forgotten.
The inextricably intertwined sentiments and innermost conflicts of Close aren’t comfort viewing by any means, but they’re an excruciatingly accurate exploration of all the angst and convolution that teens of any era have dealt with or will have to deal with come future generations. It’s also a challenging look at an idea rarely explored in American cinema, if ever: the exotic concept of nonsexual intimacy.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I got nothing. Best International Feature nominees are nearly always collections of strangers to me.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Close end credits, but they’re a real rarity in that the list of Special Thanks at the very end vastly exceeds the total number of visual effects artists who, like, changed sunlight colors or erased T-shirt logos or whatever.