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An adolescent friendship fractures in the Belgian Oscar hopeful, 'Close'

Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine star in <em>Close, </em>which Belgium has submitted for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
Diaphana Films
Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine star in Close, which Belgium has submitted for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

If you know that when Close, a story of teen friendship from Belgian writer/director Lukas Dhont, took home the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it was widely reported that there wasn't a dry eye in the house, the unalloyed joy of the film's opening moments may come as a surprise.

The filmmaker introduces his leads — rambunctious, skinny 13-year-olds Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav de Waele) carousing through the acres of commercial flower fields owned by Leo's parents, clearly as happy to be out basking in sunlight during their last summer after middle school, as are the dahlias.

Whether acting out war stories, using each other as pillows while sunning in the grass, or making up fables about lizards and ducklings as they clown around on sleepovers, the boys are so close, they might almost be brothers.

You see their bond in Leo's adoring gaze as Remi practices oboe for a concert, and in Remi's easy laugh when Leo shows him a terrible portrait he's sketched. They're glowing, grinning, inseparable.

If there's more to their feelings for each other, they don't seem to have considered it, until they start classes at a new school and some girls note their closeness and ask if they're "together ... a couple?"

Why would they ask that? wonders Leo, who responds that they're just pals. But something about the raising of the question spooks him. He starts talking sports rather than music, and hanging out with members of the hockey team. And also sitting a little further apart when he's with Remi, who notes the change and goes quiet, until one day in the schoolyard, with shoves and tears, he's not quiet any more.

Belgian writer/director Lukas Dhont makes the social forces here pervasive but subtle. No overt bullying or homophobia, just internalized pressures on still-developing psyches.

The boys — de Waele, quiet and sensitive as Remi, and Dambrine, a remarkable discovery as the more outgoing Leo — appear flummoxed by this new social landscape where intimacy that's always been OK, suddenly isn't. Where Leo can hug his older brother at school, say, but not his best friend, at least not without disapproving looks. The boys' slow separation is heartbreaking ... and then a sudden, horrific tragedy makes it so much worse.

Filmmaker Dhont is now two for two. His first film — Girl, about a trans teenager studying to be a ballerina as she seeks gender reassignment surgery — also caused a commotion at Cannes, and also proved the director could get delicately nuanced performances from young actors.

Close uses the nuance to uncover broader social implications in an adolescent tale of friendship and loss so quietly observed it could almost be a documentary.

As for the emotional impact ... with tears flowing freely at the screening I attended, were hardened critic types able to stay dry-eyed?

Not even close.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.