The Cannes award-winner “Close” from Belgian writer-director Lukas Dhont (“Girl”) is a sad tale of innocence and loss. The protagonists are 13-year-old boys who are inseparable. At school, they are teased, sometimes in an ugly manner, about being gay. This causes one of the boys, Leo (a revelatory Eden Dambrine), to push the other, Remi (the sensitive Gustav De Waele) away, resulting in tragedy.
Before this happens, their friendship is, if you’ll pardon the pun, Edenic. They ride their bikes to school together. They have sleepovers and battle imaginary armies. They run joyfully through fields of flowers. As it turns out, Leo’s family are hardworking flower farmers. This includes blond-haired Leo, who puts in his fair share of work on top of going to school and trying out for the ice hockey team. Dark-haired Remi, whose delightful mother Sophie (Emilie Dequenne) works at a hospital, practices oboe and has a concert coming up in which he plays a solo, while Leo sits with Sophie in the audience.
Leo is much more concerned about being called out as gay by his classmates than Remi is. When Remi comes to the skating rink to watch Leo practice with his team, Leo sends him away. This leads to a violent confrontation between them in the schoolyard in front of everyone. What happens next (spoiler alert), a difficult twist to accept, leaves Leo afraid and numb. Questioned about his feelings he says only that he is fine. But it is clear to us that he is not and that he blames himself for what happens.
Dhont, working with writing partner Angelo Tijssens (“Girl”), once again addresses the theme of a young person facing fear and sexual identity issues. Dhont’s filmmaking technique can be naturalistic and observational. We ride alongside Leo and Remi as they bicycle to school, their bikes impossibly, yes, close. We watch them at their families’ dinner tables and in their bedrooms. Leo works with his sunburned mother (Lea Drucker) in the fields.
But while the work of the Dardenne brothers is naturalistic, Dhont cannot resist the operatic flourish. Are either of the film’s friends gay? Are they both? Are they unusually devoted straight friends? We don’t find out, which feels like a cheat. . “Close” is a superbly acted film that could have and perhaps should have taken a less drastic turn.
(In French, Flemish and Dutch with English subtitles)
Rated: PG-13 (for thematic material involving suicide and brief strong language)
Running time: 1:45
How to watch: Now in theaters