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Review: Close

February 3, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Being made to feel self-conscious about who are as a child is a hell of a thing. Belgian director Lukas Dhont powerfully explores this feeling in his Oscar-nominated coming of age drama Close, which tells the story of Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele), two 13-year-old boys who share a very close bond.

The boys are best friends who play together, have sleepovers in the same bed, and are always at each other’s side at school. They are so close that the other kids have started to notice and come to their own conclusions, because that’s generally what kids do.

It starts with a well-meaning but nosy group of girls somewhat innocently asking if they are gay, and soon leads to taunts and playground bullying. This, in turn, causes Léo to become self-conscious and begin to second guess their interactions together, causing him to feel ashamed and start pulling away from Rémi.

Where as Dhont explored gender identity in his 2018 debut Girl, Close – which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year – finds him probing questions about burgeoning homosexuality, at an impressionable and vulnerable young age when kids are still very much in the process of figuring themselves out and being influenced by the opinions of their peers.

It’s a fragile balance that Dhont and his co-screenwriter Angelo Tijssens (who also co-wrote Girl) have carefully pulled off, since these characters haven’t even really defined their own sexuality yet. Because of this, Close offers a unique and somewhat bold riff on the traditional “coming out” narrative. While it’s easy to assume that one or both of the boys might be gay due to how they act with each other, the point is that Léo and Rémi are still just kids, and the judgements of others and the rush to put them into boxes is what ends up tearing them apart.

The visual language of Dhont’s film instantly stands out, with some gorgeous cinematography by Frank van den Eeden that makes use of gliding long takes following the kids running through fields and riding their bikes, accentuated by bright colours that pop off the screen. This gives a vivid, contrasting quality to the tragedy and heartbreak that builds within the story. The first half of Close in particular has a captivating, naturalistic energy to it that isn’t quite replicated in its slightly more conventional second half, and the film does threaten to veer into melodrama at times as it goes along, but is pulled back from the brink.

Dhont’s film works thanks to the impressive performances that he gets out of his young actors, and the lingering questions that he raises. Émile Dequenne also does strong work as Rémi’s mother, whom Léo finds himself getting close to. I found myself wondering how these events will continue to haunt these characters in ten or twenty years, and that’s really the power of Dhont’s moving and emotionally fragile film. This is a tender, beautifully observed, and quietly heartbreaking portrait of young male friendship, that captures those fleeting moments of freedom before the harsh judgements of the world come barging in to shatter it.

Close is now playing in limited release, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Sphere Films.

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